After six months spent totally isolated, walled in with parents or even simply ignoring the pandemic as it transformed the world in irreparable ways, IU’s students returned to the campus they left in March. It was the same place it had always been when they arrived more than a week ago, but so much about their lives in Bloomington was unfamiliar.
IU invited its more than 40,000 students to campus and then gave them strict instructions to follow social distancing guidelines and be mindful of the pandemic that had already killed more than 180,000 Americans. Some listened. Some didn’t.
Many universities had already decided to operate completely online for the fall. A handful that tried to bring students back had to send them home again after a matter of days because of clusters and outbreaks.
By the end of IU's first school week, 378 students tested positive and were sent home or put in isolation, and 11 greek houses were directed to quarantine. The 1% positivity rate was in line with what officials predicted. Students remained on campus.
The week before classes started, the parties began.
Videos popped up on social media showing large group gatherings of college-aged people drinking from red solo cups, playing party games and blasting loud music from Bloomington’s front porches and lawns.
Most of the party attendees in the videos were unmasked and standing well within 6 feet of each other, often crammed onto small patios and overflowing into front yards.
In a now-hidden video tweeted Aug. 19, a group of about 100 people are shown partying. IU responded on Twitter saying it was aware of the event and looking into it. The university said it would proceed with disciplinary action.
A similar video shows a party on an outdoor front porch of an off-campus house. Red solo cups and plastic bottles line the porch’s railing as unmasked partygoers sip drinks. It could be any Welcome Week.
Faculty, staff, students and parents wondered whether IU's in-person experience could last.
Students filed into the Bill Garrett Fieldhouse on the afternoon of Aug. 20, phones in hand, eyes on the COVID-19 tests that lay ahead. “Have you experienced any of these symptoms in the past three days?” repurposed IU employees asked over and over.
A few feet past the check-in table, students lingered to create accounts on their phones to receive their test results. At the next table, more waited patiently for the clear tubes they would soon be spitting into. Pieces of red tape reminded them to stay 6 feet apart.
On the other side of the dividers that split the fieldhouse in half, students stood in four socially distanced lines, masks askew as they awkwardly spat into the vessels.
They strained to produce the surprising amount of saliva necessary and glob it into that narrow opening — all despite not being allowed to eat or drink for the last half hour. When they finally reached that elusive fill line, they screwed the lids on and shook the tubes, wiped them off and dropped them into white buckets emblazoned with orange biohazard symbols.
Nick Browning said his roommates had already been tested, so the challenge of reaching the line wasn't a surprise. He said he was just glad the test wasn’t that long swab that goes all the way up your nose.
In one of the lines, a student laughed as his friend struggled to fill the tube.
“I thought it was just me!” he said, but like so many pandemic struggles, the trial of reaching that line was one endured collectively.
The Hamilton Lugar School’s Living-Learning Center in Spruce Hall is normally a lively place to live, with students packed into lounges and crammed into the kitchenette. This fall, though, the lounges and halls are almost completely empty, with those who do linger to chat keeping their 6 feet and then moving along.
Maggie Rushton, a freshman in the LLC, was initially nervous about making friends with COVID-19 restrictions in place on campus, but she was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn’t as difficult as she anticipated.
LLC freshmen have a group chat they’ve been using to invite one another to eat together outdoors or play volleyball, among other distanced and outdoor activities.
Rushton said LLC students are following the rules — hence the mostly empty halls, lounges and other shared spaces — but she knows other freshmen are gathering in large groups and making private party group chats, which annoys her.
“Normally, I try to mind my own business, but this is one of the few things that I will absolutely be a snitch on,” she said Aug. 20.
On the last Friday night before classes began, students and families with masks on, in hand or stuffed in a pocket waited outside Mother Bear’s Pizza waiting to hear their name called for a table. People with carry-out orders hurried in and out.
“Maddie for two, last call,” a host yelled out the door as two girls hustled toward the door.
The restaurant was full, but the patrons were socially distanced by off-limits tables marked with an X of blue tape and chairs stacked on top. Servers gave quick speeches about the restaurant’s mask policy as they led groups to tables.
“Anytime you’re not at the table, you have to wear a mask,” server Cole Chapman told one pack of students.
Business has been steady at Mother Bear's, Chapman said. When students were gone, he said delivery was popular with the locals. With students back on campus, Chapman said this year's Weeks of Welcome brought in sales close to any other year.
The restaurant’s walls are scribbled with years worth of names, drawings and words.
“If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” one Sharpied phrase read.
At the College Mall Target on Aug. 22, shoppers still circled the lot to find empty parking spots, still weaved around moving cars to get into the store and still found a madhouse of a store that looked like it would any other move-in weekend.
“Do you still need hangers?” a mother asked her son.
Furniture shelves were barren. Pillows were scarce. Soap containers, towels, wall art, shower curtains, plates and pans were all going quickly, too. A sign welcomed students and families to the section for “college essentials,” but they were already cleared out.
Milk and paper plates were sold out like quarantine was beginning again.
The customer service area was already filled with a large pile of returns — mostly furniture that didn’t work in new homes. The store resells the items after sanitizing them.
Mothers stood outside the store waiting with their children while fathers drove the car up. They stuffed ottomans and lamps into SUV trunks before returning to dorms or apartments.
If not for the masks, it could've been any other back-to-school rush.
Around 11 p.m. Aug. 22, a line of about 30 people, all wearing masks, snaked outside of Brothers Bar and Grill.
One man mused over his drink order from under his black IU mask. The woman next to him looked down at her phone as he debated what the move was. Eventually, he settled on a double vodka Red Bull.
“That sounds good,” she said, disinterested.
Two doors down from Brothers sat The Video Saloon, a bar run by Jeremy Black and his wife, Chelsea. The Vid’s sit-down booths were filled with decommissioned bar stools to prevent people from sitting too close or approaching the bar to make an order.
Black scrambled around the bar, trying to do a little bit of everything: keep tabs on his employees, serve customers, ensure social distancing and continuously sanitize public areas.
He grabbed a pool cue a customer had just set down, sprayed it, toweled it off and began gathering the balls left on the pool table, spraying each individually.
Mike Shiflet, doorman at the Vid, watched a group of five men come in around midnight. After four of the friends had gotten their IDs approved by Shiflet, the last handed his over while holding his shirt up to cover his mouth. Shiflet told him he had to wear a mask.
“I have one on me somewhere,” the man said.
“Well you better go find it,” Shiflet replied.
After a few seconds of scrambling, one of the man’s friends produced an extra mask from his pocket and they were all allowed to enter.
“Find a place to park yourself before you take that mask off,” Shiflet warned.
“Let’s do a family picture!” junior Camden East’s mother called out.
The day before his classes would begin — all online — East and his family continuously rearranged in front of the Sample Gates for group shots. It was nice to be back, he thought.
Kirkwood Avenue bustled as people enjoyed the new outdoor dining areas installed over the summer. A group of girls with shopping bags and carry-out boxes rushed across the crosswalk to walk onto campus.
Families and students chatted as they walked on the red brick path past university buildings, likely to be used at half capacity this semester.
Masks were common but not universal. A group of students wearing theirs under their chins pulled them up when walking by a family without.
The Indiana Memorial Union should have been filled with families and students scrambling to pick up textbooks, highlighters and planners. But the day before classes began, there were hardly any lines in the bookstore. The union’s hallways weren’t filled with loud footsteps or the din of chatter.
From the outside, the IMU looked as it always did. Tables with umbrellas were still set up outside the entrances. Some students sat outside on the sunny afternoon, tapping away at laptops.
At every entrance, colorful signs hung with graphics of a mask, hand washing or spread 6 feet apart as a reminder to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines. Right inside the main doors to the building were hand sanitizing stations. Signs instructed patrons to stay to the right side of the hallways.
The couches where students once curled up for quick between-classes naps were gone. There was no Starbucks line winding out the back door and into the hall, no machines whirring, no yelling out names as students waited for their frappuccinos .
“I’m very nervous,” an older man said as he walked slowly through the halls.
On Monday, no one sat on the floor of Ballantine Hall or vied for spots on benches to wait for class. There was no line outside the cafe, and no stomping up and down the stairs. You could hear and follow a single conversation through the hallway.
Much of campus looked as it did during the summer, when most students were home and no in-person classes were in session. Grassy areas stayed empty. You could comfortably walk by the bus stop on East Seventh Street, by the IMU, which is typically so clogged with students that passersby are forced into the street.
North Jordan Avenue, the center of IU’s greek life, was devoid of energy Monday, too. The thrum of bass and belting voices rang from the occasional car driving by, windows down, but fraternity and sorority houses were silent. Small groups of people sat on porches and chatted on sidewalks. Few wore masks.
Usually, the 15 students in a Movement for the Theatre class would be in a smaller room in the theater building. This semester, Leraldo Anzaldua is teaching his class in a dance studio in the School of Public Health building, to satisfy the university’s new capacity caps.
Anzaldua teaches movement and stage combat. He records each lesson on Zoom now, in case students don’t feel like coming in or haven’t gotten a test result back yet. They can watch live or catch up with the videos later.
The students moved from the numbered spots to a socially-distanced circle, with Anzaldua in the center. Then the formation was scrambled for warmup. Everyone ran to new spots, weaving in between each other and trying not to collide.
“Observe your social distancing!” Anzaldua shouted. “Don’t let people within 6 feet of you!”
For the first class Tuesday, he brought in a guest teacher to talk about self agency, consent and boundaries.
They practiced setting boundaries with partners, but from 6 feet away. They waved at each other instead of touching.
Anzaldua reminded the students that boundaries don’t just denote physical limits. Social distancing and mask guidelines are boundaries everyone has to follow.
“It’s OK to enforce that,” he said.
IU theater instructor Anna Doyle waited about 10 minutes after the start of class as students filtered into the Zoom room Thursday — their webcams showing floating heads and glimpses into their homes.
Some students had trouble getting their videos or mics to work. Some left and rejoined. Others arrived late. After waiting for her class of nearly 20 to assemble, Doyle marked down attendance. “Let’s go down the roster,” she said. “Give us one word for how you’re feeling today.”
“Feeling sad today,” one student responded. Others follow up: They are feeling overwhelmed, tired, exhausted, healthy, motivated.
Doyle teaches Fundamentals of Acting, a class that typically involves physical and vocal exercises, improvisations and performances. This semester, their stage is virtual.
After checking in with everyone, Doyle led a short exercise called “one-word story.” She posted a list of students’ names, asking them each to say a single word.
Some students typed their words in the chat. Some said them out loud. Some couldn’t hear each other. Doyle told them to type and say their words to ensure everyone can follow along, but this seemed to cause more confusion. After fumbling around with their keyboards and microphones, each student finally got a chance to respond as Doyle helped them remember what the previous students said.
Doyle used to start her classes with 20 minutes of games and exercises. She said this time warmed people up and built trust. Now, even simple exercises are intermixed with technical difficulties and confusion.
“So much of acting has to do with feeding off each other's energy,” she said in an email. “That's just not the same over Zoom.”
Over the weekend, students seemed to party more quietly and in smaller groups than they had the week before. Maybe the stern emails from administrators worked.
Friday night, IU announced eight greek houses were locked down. By Saturday night, it was up to 11.
Students wondered whether they were about to be sent home to live with their parents once again. As with so many things in the past six months, they had no way of knowing.