Twelve thousand boxes were shipped to Tulane University in mid-March.
One thousand seven hundred fifty students filled the boxes with their belongings and shipped the contents of their dorm rooms and apartments into a storage facility in New Orleans.
Tulane covered the first two months of storage, and each student spent up to $300 to keep their belongings stored for the entire summer, while they returned home to take classes online and wait out the coronavirus pandemic.
One month passed. Two months. Enter three.
An empty campus on St. Charles Avenue?
Tulane never fully closed during the pandemic and about 250 students continued to live in campus housing through the end of the spring semester, May 2.
Since then, more students returned home, and university officials say they consolidated the 50 to 60 students left living on campus into Wall and Warren Residence Halls.
There those students remain.
And they're not alone.
School officials say there are 1,825 students still living on campus in Louisiana's largest universities and colleges. Populations range from as many as 310 students at Louisiana Tech to as few as the four students living at Northwestern State. Some institutions, like Southern University's Baton Rouge campus and Loyola University in New Orleans, have none at all.
These students are out-of-staters who hail from hotspot regions, officials say. They are the children and grandchildren of immunocompromised relatives. They are international students who are either locked in the U.S. or locked out of their home countries due to the spread of COVID-19. They are escapees from domestic violence, familial drug use, household hostility due to their sexual orientation.
For the foreseeable future, these students are the wards of residential life officials who are rewriting rulebooks to make sure the stranded have a safe place to sleep.
"Sometimes people have nowhere else to go," said Catherine David, LSU Residential Life's associate director of communications and development.
Gabriela Gomez, 27, plays the flute. She's a doctoral student in the LSU School of Music, an international student from the Dominican Republic. The Caribbean island has over 13,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 400 deaths, enough to earn a "Level 4" rating from the U.S. Embassy as a place where citizens should "avoid all international travel."
"I considered going back home," Gomez said. "But my country's borders are still closed. It's been nice to be able to stay here until we figure something out."
Gomez scratched out Backup Plan A: living with family in New York, the state with the highest number of coronavirus deaths and cases per capita in the country.
She scratched out Backup Plan B, too: staying with friends in Texas, a state that enforced Louisiana travelers into 14-day quarantine from March 29 until May 1.
Luckily, Gomez said, LSU extended its May 9 move-out date through May 31 at no cost. She and her roommate, Jana Zilova, have both decided to sign leases that will keep them on campus through the summer.
The move-out deadline at the University of New Orleans, May 17, has already passed. Of the 117 students left living on campus, a school housing official said, 39 students are staying in interim housing.
Interim students have until the start of UNO's summer semester, June 9, to decide whether they will sign summer leases. In the meantime, they can either pay $250 to stay for the entire interim period or a prorated amount based on room type, ranging from $40 to $60 a day.
Carolyn Golz, UNO's Dean of Students, said the university didn't at first know where exactly stranded students would be able to stay on campus.
In late March, Gov. John Bel Edwards and his administration explored using college dorms to house "step-down" patients — people who are COVID-19 positive but aren't in critical condition — if the state's hospital capacity reached a critical level.
Golz said at that point UNO began to strongly encourage students to leave, reimbursing students 25% on their housing and meal plans if they moved out by March 27.
"That's when we realized the extent of the number of students who still needed to stay," Golz said. "That even though we were offering them refunds to go, we were encouraging them to go, they continued to say, 'I don't have anywhere to go.'"
The Governor's Office eventually moved away from dorms and selected the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to house potential overflow patients. School officials said the state decided dorm rooms weren't effective healthcare units because they lacked proper beds, trained staffing and medical equipment, among other shortcomings.
These were the same conditions in which the remaining students lived, and, although college students weren't step-down patients, housing officials across the state made adjustments to boost safety on campus.
"We had to keep safety first and foremost," LSU's David said. "So all our decisions and conversations with students were based on what do students need? And how can we deliver those services in the most efficient way and the safest way possible?"
LSU consolidated the students still living in residence halls into the East and West Campus apartments, where David said each student had their own bedroom and bathroom.
Three student managers still oversee each property and stay in touch with residents. The same custodial staffs clean the same rooms every time, and students can opt out from having their rooms cleaned if they'd prefer no one else entering their rooms.
There are new rules, too: no guests, no gatherings, 24-hour quiet hours.
Similar setups and rules are spread across Louisiana's institutions, but they can't guarantee safety.
At Tulane, a housing official said, there were two suspected coronavirus cases that came back negative in March. The students were quarantined separately — one in a residence hall, another in an apartment — until their results came back. Nurses checked in and school employees dropped off meals while they waited.
The Louisiana Department of Health does not track COVID-19 cases by college affiliation, a spokesperson said, although, as of Friday, there are 5,015 confirmed cases and nine deaths with Louisianans aged 18-29.
Institutions may not be aware of student cases unless the students report their sickness directly to the school.
UNO's Golz said a student attending another university in New Orleans, who lived at a third-party apartment on campus, was transported to the hospital by ambulance in early April. The school and the apartment still do not know whether the event was coronavirus related. The student has not returned, Golz said, and attempts to track down answers have been fruitless.
UNO has sent students multiple emails asking them to let staffers know if they get sick, Golz said, and the school has made a thermometer available for students at the Pontchartrain Halls.
Tulane set up an online reporting database specifically for COVID-19. Erica Woodley, Tulane's Dean of Students, said a student communicated with school staffers from Panama while getting tested for coronavirus.
"Being able to have something they could do, report it, was important for them (in) feeling that we were aware of what was happening," Woodley said.
Meanwhile, the remaining on-campus students across Louisiana still had to complete their spring classes online and many will take summer coursework.
Southern University System President-Chancellor Ray Belton told the House Appropriations Committee in early May that "about 20%" of the system's students did not own or could not access the technology to engage in online coursework.
“In some cases," Belton said, "it imposed them to stay on campus."
The CARES Act, which sent almost $80 million in government aid to Louisiana students, was intended to relieve students of costs incurred in the coronavirus transition. But the payments, which ranged from $150 to $3,000 per student, were off-limits to international students, which make up a substantial portion of the students remaining on Louisiana campuses.
Southern's Shreveport campus is housing 30 students, and, of the 53 students living on the New Orleans campus, 18 are international students. The four students remaining at Northwestern State are all international students, and three are in housing for a few more weeks while they await flights home.
Zilova, Gomez's roommate at LSU, had to replace her computer when it crashed right before the school transitioned online. She could not return to her home in the Czech Republic, another "Level 4" country.
"I was like, I'm in this mess right now," Zilova, 29, said. "I can't go home. I have to sort this out before I can leave."
Zilova, also a doctoral student in music, plays the oboe. She and Gomez practice on their own, waiting for normalcy to return.
"I miss playing with other people," Zilova said. "The semester, it was OK being online. It's just I would not want to go through that in the fall again."