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COVID-19 increases incoming mail at ND, demanding flexibility in mail distribution

| Friday, August 21, 2020

Inside Notre Dame’s Mail Distribution Center, sorting shelves are carefully labeled and coded with blue, pink, orange and green Post-it Notes. A four-minute walk away, two Amazon packages sit forlornly by the elevator on the first floor of Farley Hall. The next day, a few more appear on the floor by the mailroom.

The Mail Distribution Center’s staff has been using the colorful Post-it Notes to keep track of special requests from different academic departments regarding mail distribution. Due to the public health exigencies of the coronavirus pandemic, some offices have made the decision to operate online only or in a hybrid manner. This requires that the center have more flexibility in its delivery schedule.

Normally, the center distributes mail sorted by Notre Dame’s U.S. Postal Service Office (NDPO) to over 200 academic departments and over 30 residence halls, according to Patti Sikorski, manager of the Mail Distribution Center. They do not distribute any Amazon, United Parcel Service (UPS), FedEx, DHL or third-party parcels, which are delivered directly to dorms and departments.

The center was operating at 90% of their usual capacity, since some departments working online prefer to pick up their own mail from the center or have it delivered once a week. Since Tuesday’s announcement  that University classes will move online for the next two weeks, a few academic departments have decided to pick up their mail directly. Sikorski said she expects more to make that switch; however, the Mail Distribution Center will continue delivering to departments who prefer it that way, as well as to residence halls.

Adjusting to specific requests is only one of the ways in which the pandemic has affected normal operations for the center, and even outside delivery companies, a significant number of packages and mail have been flowing into residence halls since before the first week of classes.

“It seems like it,” Sikorski said when The Observer asked whether students had been receiving more mail lately. “We have seen an increase, which has been nice. [It] keeps you busy, and then you go home. We’re happy to see the kids back, though. … Since March, it’s been kind of quiet.”

Sikorski believes that, since students had short 90-minute slots for move-in, they had to have many things shipped to their rooms. Student move-in was staggered as to permit physical distancing and to allow for sanitization of common areas, according to Residential Life.

The parcels are not only numerous but bigger than usual, too. Students seem to be ordering things such as refrigerators, Sikorski said, resulting in her staff taking multiple trips to residence halls.

Some college students and their families have been relying on online shopping for essentials and supplies as school starts again. Reports from Deloitte found that “the coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on back-to-school and back-to-college shopping, sparking a spike in safety concerns and bolstering a growing preference for online-only and e-commerce options,” according to Business Insider.

“Oh my god, there were so many [packages] this week, last week and the week before,” said Tiffany Milligan, who alongside her colleague Cody Cox delivers for Amazon on campus. “We’ve actually been having to double up because today we had 10 routes and only eight people.”

Cox confirmed this, saying the number of packages surpasses the number of drivers.

Cox and Milligan also offered an answer for students who might be missing Amazon orders that have been marked as delivered. Milligan said there is a backlog of packages that are still being distributed.

“[With] everybody coming back, it was all backed up. So now we’re pushing everything out that we had to hold on [to],” she said. “It’s been a lot. Hopefully soon it’ll slow down.”

Some of the measures Milligan and Cox have been following to ensure public health and safety include wiping the delivery vans down every day and using sanitizer every time they enter a residence hall.

The Mail Distribution Center is also cleaning several times a day, wiping equipment, wearing gloves and doing health checks at home and upon arriving on campus, in order to follow health recommendations.

The center normally has student helpers, Sikorski said; however, they have decided to operate without these workers for the first few weeks, at least until they are able to gauge how the virus is affecting the student body. The center is currently operating with only seven staff members.

The staff still relies on many student workers to deliver mail within dorms: mail clerks in many residence halls continue sorting and delivering mail, and have also had to adapt to a large influx of packages.

Kayla Joseph-Ollivierre, a junior and Farley Hall’s mail clerk, said students are stocking up on necessities they would normally buy at Target or Walmart.

Many students are receiving care packages from home, Joseph-Ollivierre said. Her own mother recently mailed her a box of snacks, Lysol wipes and other supplies, she added.

“Things have been backed up, so I get twice as many packages as usual,” she said regarding the United States Postal Service.

Joseph-Ollivierre has been trying to balance the demands of being a mail clerk in these unprecedented times with her life on campus. To adapt, she is considering doing room deliveries once a week and holding mail hours twice a week.

In Walsh Hall, the mail distribution system is working differently. The dorm’s mail clerks, junior Ella Crowley and sophomore Rebecca Ruiz said they have been holding daily mail hours to distribute packages.

This is Crowley’s second year as one of Walsh’s mail clerks. She recalls a similar heavy influx of incoming mail at the beginning of classes in the fall of 2019, such as textbooks and mail from parents.

“I don’t know, it’s been a year, so it’s hard to tell if this high volume is from the year just starting or COVID or both,” Crowley said.

Crowley and Ruiz are able to maintain safety protocols, as they wear masks and regulate the number of residents allowed in the mailroom at a time.

The Walsh mail clerks have also noted some peculiarities regarding Amazon deliveries.

“I’ve seen a lot of [Amazon] Prime packages sitting in the hallways; so, there are a lot more packages than we’re sorting through,” Ruiz said.

They offered another possible answer for any lost Amazon packages: in Walsh, as in Farley, some parcels from the e-commerce company have not been delivered to people’s doors.

“Last year we never, ever had to sort Amazon packages,” Crowley said. “They would always just go to people’s rooms. But lately, there have been some that they just deliver to the mailroom.”

Meanwhile, junior Tyler Krasny, Knott Hall’s two-time mail clerk, offered a different picture than the one painted by Sikorski and the other mail clerks — he does not think the number of packages he has had to deliver is particularly high right now.

“I just had my first shift a few days ago, and I’d say the package volume wasn’t really any higher than normal,” Krasny said.

Looking ahead to the general election on November, Sikorski expects to see many ballots come in for students who are voting absentee.

“Actually, when it gets closer to that time, we check the boxes more often,” she said. “I know the post office does too.”

In the spring semester, the Mail Distribution Center made sure to forward election mail, tax returns and any important mail to students’ homes and quarantine locations.

“When everybody left, those were some of the top priority that we turned around and readdressed home,” Sikorski said.

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About Adriana Perez

Adriana is a junior from Guayaquil, Ecuador majoring in Political Science and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy and Sustainability. You can find her on Twitter @adrianamperezr.

Contact Adriana