A new normal as Panthers return

The University of Northern Iowa campus is once again alive.

After a long layoff due to COVID-19, the first day of class on Aug. 17 unfolded with the everyday sights and sounds of college life. Masked students walked to and from class or lounged in the Adirondack chairs in the shade of elm and ash trees. 

The electronic beep of scanned student ID cards and the whir of espresso machines filled the background while students waited six feet apart for their coffee or tea at Chats in Maucker Union, the baristas protected by a sheet of Plexiglass. 

Class is back in session, but with safeguards in place across campus. Classes are more spread out, with some outdoors or online, while masks are required in every building. Students, staff and faculty said they were glad to be back on campus, as it marked a hopeful sign of a return to normal.

“I’m excited to be back,” said senior music education major Aaron Manning, who was staffing a booth for Chi Alpha - a student Christian ministry on campus - in the Maucker Union on Monday. “It’s fun to see all my friends, even if we’re socially distanced. It’s like being back in a new normal. I missed the campus vibe and being on campus and seeing my friends and going to classes.”

Freshman TESOL teaching major William Kirchmann sat in an Adirondack chair outside of the Rod Library waiting for his French class to start. Although a freshman, he started attending UNI last spring, so he witnessed the transition forced by the pandemic.

“I did not like taking classes online, so I’m really happy that we’re primarily taking classes offline now,” Kirchmann said. “Being here is definitely something I missed a lot. I missed being able to walk around campus and go to my classes rather than sit at home and go to meetings online. I like the more social aspect of it.”

Senior family services major Madelyn Russ said it came as a shock when classes ended abruptly last semester.

“I’m loving being back on campus and seeing people. It’s very different, but it’s exciting,” Russ said. “For me learning in person is so much easier. I love walking around campus in my free time and seeing people excited to be at school and learning.”

The return of students to campus was also a welcome sight to staff. Jackie Williams, a library assistant III at the Rod Library, was sitting on the roof of the union, enjoying the sunlight and the renewed bustle of campus on her break.

“It’s been so quiet here. I came every couple weeks in the summer break, and it’s just really sad to see the campus totally empty,” Williams said. “It’s nice to see students talking and walking around, enjoying campus while staying socially distant and wearing masks.”

Deb VanRoekel, a greenhouse caretaker for grounds services, reflected on her almost thirty years on campus after watering a pot of flowers near the Campanile on Monday. She said 2020 has been the most unique and unusual year she can remember.

“This has really disrupted the flow of campus,” VanRoekel said. “But I think they’re glad to be back because it’s getting closer to getting back to normal for them.”

UNI associate professor of geography Alex Oberle said he noticed a different mood in his classroom on the first day of the semester.

“I sensed an appreciation for the return to traditional class formats and an extra eagerness to learn and be part of the residential college experience,” Oberle said.

Oberle also said he was encouraged by the students’ adherence with the safety precautions.

“I am super impressed, but not surprised, by how respectful our students are, with not only 100% compliance with mask wearing in class, but also the attention they have taken to keep social distancing in the classroom and even continuing to wear masks outside of buildings as they travel across campus,” Oberle said.