As students flock back to IU’s campus, many feel waves of emotions as they return to in-person events and resume classes. All the while, worries of the delta variant of the coronavirus grow stronger.
Seniors return to what feels like a crowded campus as they look to make the most of their time left. Juniors reminisce about their semester and half in person before the pandemic while relearning buildings and bus routes. Sophomores mirror the freshmen by sharing similar first-time experiences after spending most of their first year online.
Bloomington feels different yet familiar entering the third academic year inflicted with a pandemic.
At the Upstairs Pub on the first $2 Tuesday of the semester, the bouncer asked patron after patron to pull down their masks to check IDs against faces. After conducting his brief moment of scrutiny and deeming the faces matched, they pulled their masks back up and stepped inside.
A few feet beyond the bouncer’s ongoing routine, a woman in an orange halter top asked the bartender, “can I get an AMF?” He handed her the bright blue drink moments later, then turned to make another.
Just past 8 p.m., the bar was already beginning to fill in, with a steady stream of people still flashing IDs and finding seats. The heat grew more bearable as the sun set. Some claimed seats on the patio overlooking Kirkwood Avenue while others headed the opposite direction, toward the pool table at the back of the bar.
Other than the bar’s staff and people milling around near the bartop waiting to order a drink, most faces were unmasked. Many were lighting up at the sight of friends they hadn’t seen in months.
IU seniors Sarah Groechel, Bari Stockel and Kiley Roff sat at the corner of the patio. Their matching reddish-pink drinks — double Dirty Shirleys — sat in front of them on the table as they talked. The three said they were excited to be back in person and to see the sidewalks full of people again.
“It’s nice to have some sense of normalcy,” Roff said with her friends nodding in agreement.
In the School of Public Health dance studio, students stood in rows, listening as instructor Selene Carter explained an exercise. They weren't quite standing six feet apart, but all were masked. It’s both a closeness they weren’t able to have last year and a reminder that the pandemic isn’t over.
They began stretching their arms up to the ceiling or down to the floor, lengthening and narrowing the positions of their bodies. The activity, an exercise in breath and movement, teaches them to incorporate new shapes and patterns into their lives.
“When you were home during COVID, was there a certain form you got a little stuck in?” Carter asked. “I know I did.”
One student crouched down hugging her knees to her chest. Another rolled onto her back on the mat. For a few minutes, the feelings of rigidity and constraint of the last year seemed to dissipate with each flowing movement.
They moved to talking about what it’s like to be back in person, using words like “exciting,” “refreshing” and “amazing.” IU senior Audrey Surina said she feels more motivated.
The group agreed the transition has been chaotic, but they agreed they felt safe together in this space.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Sample Gates bustled with activity.
Sweaty students power walked to catch already stuffed buses as Lime scooter riders and cyclists swerved around them. A pair of girls in white tank tops and biker shorts gossiped as they walked in tandem toward Kirkwood Avenue. A trio of women exclaimed and hugged on the sidewalk as if they hadn’t seen each other since before quarantine.
Only small details betrayed the persistent presence of the pandemic. Blue surgical face masks hugged chins and looped around wrists. Orange bulbs lit up a road sign on Kirkwood, blinking out messages like “Mask up indoors” and “Stay safe!”
A tour guide led a group to the highly photographed destination. The prospective students craned their necks to see the outdoor seating down Kirkwood and admire the limestone arches of the Sample Gates.
“Take in the ambience of being on campus,” the guide told the group.
Perched on a stone ledge near the bus stop, senior Peyton Sanders scrolled on her phone waiting for a friend to pick her up. Sanders said she’s optimistic about this semester, but she worries about the new delta variant, especially because she lives with immunocompromised people in her hometown.
Students filtered in the Student Recreational Sports Center Thursday. With water bottles in hand and headphones in their ears, gym-goers pulled up their masks as they walked through the door. Colorful signs reminded them mask-wearing is a requirement — even while working out.
Students exited with smiles behind masks, suggesting they were just happy to be back. On a balcony above the pool, two students laughed as they practiced handstands.
The sound of a scanner beeping each time someone entered or exited echoed through the lobby continuously.
IU junior Hannah Chenevert said she's seen increased energy this year compared to the last while working at the front desk.
Safety operations, such as scheduled cleaning breaks throughout the day, have hung around from last year. However, some pre-pandemic activities have resumed, such as intramural sports and more available equipment.
Hoards of people walk in every direction around the Showalter Fountain Thursday afternoon as people on bikes, skateboards and scooters weave in and out of the crowd. Students fresh out of class spill over into the bike lane from the path beside the IU Auditorium.
“Excuse me, bike lane,” a man on a bike repeatedly yelled out as others walking stepped in front of him.
Students fill the street, calling out to friends and burying their heads in their phones, as if the road is for anything but vehicles. Within the crowd, the bus struggles to reach its stop where more students are waiting, impatiently checking the bus tracker.
Patches of red, white and pink flowers surround the fountain. Students find an oasis of shade on the sunny 90-degree day, either by lounging on the Lilly Library steps or lunging at any available limestone benches.
Dunn Meadow had laid mostly silent last year, but on this Thursday it was packed to the brim with music playing, students sweating profusely and the chatter of club members pitching their organization to oncoming students from every booth.
Rows of tables, stretched from Indiana Avenue to the walkway up into the Indiana Memorial Union, were lined up for the Student Activities Fair, where people from all grades crowded around posters and signs promoting the various club options and student groups available at IU.
One student standing on the outskirts of the booths stared at the crowd ahead for a few seconds. Then, turning to his friend, he said, “There are way too many people here.”
Banner-like signs, denoting sections such as arts, sports and social clubs, made it easier to navigate the endless number of organizations among students. Student club representatives walked around wearing leis or with suckers in their mouths as they passed out club flyers.
Students tugged at their shirts to try and cool off while weaving down the rows of clubs. Blots of sweat speckled the backs of students’ shirts.
A Kona Ice truck sat on East Seventh Street, offering students a chance to cool down with a colorful snow cone. Many tables had tents, and those needing a break from the sun took shelter in the shade, fanning themselves or holding an umbrella over their head.
Music was played at a few booths. “I like the stuff you’re playing,” one club representative said as she spun around and danced to the music during a lapse of visitors at her booth.
In semesters past, the tables inside Bloomington Bagel Company would fill up with students munching on Asiago bagels while chatting with friends or working on laptops in the cool relief of air conditioning. But on Friday morning, those tables were off-limits, laden with upside-down chairs and cardboard boxes.
A laminated sign at the front of the ordering line reminded patrons to wear masks and social distance, by order of the health department.
A constant stream of customers approached the shop, masks at the ready, but most stayed just long enough to collect their brown-paper-bagged bagels before leaving. Some settled in the shady seating of Peoples Park across the street.
Two girls showed the cashier their COVID-19 vaccination cards to receive free bracelets as part of a promotion for those who had received the shot. They admired the new rainbow silicone bands imprinted with “Bloomington Bagel Company” and wriggled them on their wrists while they waited for food.
Masked students spread out around Herman B Wells Library Friday, staring at computer screens and flipping through their textbooks.
Last semester, students were required to schedule their visits to the library. Instead of flashing an email confirming a reservation, students can now freely roam about the building to find their favorite study spot.
Sarah Alexander works as a reference and technical services associate in the East Tower of the library. She said she is seeing more students on the second floor where she works compared to last year.
“I’m just happy to sit and people ask me where things are,” Alexander said.
On the fourth floor of the West Tower, the University Information Technology Services support desk caters to students with technology issues, usually with MacBooks and Wi-Fi.
“I will be right with you, sir,” a UITS team member said to a distressed student at one of the desktop Macs.
At Bookmarket Eatery, seating areas have been rearranged with tables seated with well-caffeinated students talking to friends and working on assignments.
IU junior Riley Kirsch never had to wait in line at Sugar and Spice Bakery inside the IMU before. Yet on Friday afternoon, she stood in a winding line wrapping its way around the pastry counter and back towards the Biddle Hotel lobby.
An IU Dining employee moved down the line, asking each customer for their drink order and name before scribbling the information onto a cardboard coffee cup sleeve.
Behind the counter, new employees are being trained among the chaos. Exclamations of “You should be washing out the shakers as soon as you are done” and “Someone needs to put the top on this” are heard above the chatter of the line.
Just past noon, the pastry cabinet is already nearing bare. Some cookies and cupcakes remain, but the dishes reserved for croissants, muffins and banana bread have been emptied.
Kirsch, a transfer student whose first year at IU was marred by the pandemic, said she has never seen IU’s campus so packed.
“It feels busier, like significantly busier,” Kirsch said. “I feel like everyone’s more excited because we had a year of not being able to do anything.”
Seating at the IMU was in high demand. When a student collected her items and left her table, another student promptly took her place less than 30 seconds later.
IU sophomore Chris Lane said the dramatic increase of people on campus is both anxiety-inducing and a welcome opportunity to make friends.
“I had kind of gotten used to a more empty campus so seeing all the people — it felt good to be kind of normal, but it was also pretty overwhelming,” Lane said. “People are being a lot more social and it’s easier to meet people, which is nice.”
Students enjoying a late lunch and chatting with their friends filled the tables of Wright Quad Dining Hall Friday afternoon. The rows of tables were a far cry from last year when the room was largely empty besides the long table where IU Dining employees placed students’ pick up orders.
Conversations ranged from the NFL preseason to the best hair products, but one thing remained the same: no one wore a mask.
IU freshman Shubham Lahane said the mask mandate is heavily enforced in classrooms and the SRSC but not as strictly in dining or residence halls.
Most students wore masks when entering the food court and ordering their food, but removed them once they were seated.
People wait in a line snaking around the gates outside of Kilroys on the first Friday night of the school year. A group of people stand together and try to plan their night next door at Z&C.
At 10 p.m. the night is getting started for many. A group of five women with seemingly coordinated black crop tops and light wash jeans walk down Kirkwood Avenue. One asks herself outloud, “Why am I on LinkedIn right now?”
“Why don’t we have these at home?” one man said to a friend as he hopped off an electric Lime scooter.
One woman walks by herself, quickly looking back and forth between her maps app and the buildings around her.
Three women smile at the people walking past them on the sidewalk as they hold hands. They skip down the middle of the street in a blocked off section of the well-known avenue.
Just past sunset Friday, North Jordan Avenue, commonly known as “greek row,” was gearing up for the night ahead. The rain had stopped about an hour earlier, giving way to a blue and pink sky.
On the first weekend after classes, those days of quarantine and potential shutdowns felt like a distant memory. Though the night hadn’t really begun and the avenue was quiet, sidewalks were full of young men and women walking in small groups, sometimes waving at the people they passed.
Some sorority sisters accessorized with masks hanging from their wrists, ready to put them on when needed. Some fraternity brothers milled around on the balcony of Phi Delta Theta, while others walked toward their houses with boxes of takeout in hand.