CINCINNATI — After a year of online classes, Zoom lectures and empty dorms, the Xavier University campus is buzzing again as students return for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic pushed them all online in the spring of 2020.
"Um, at first I was a little scared, just because you couldn't tell, am I gonna stay on campus for two weeks or a month, for the whole semester, it was kind of just hard to gauge," said Madeline Mercado, a sophomore at Xavier.
Like many freshmen last year, Mercado had a unique experience for her first year of college.
"I always tell people that if I could have a really good year last year, you know with a lot of restrictions and everything, I can only imagine how much better this year is going to be," she said.
With her mask in hand, she said she's ready to see a sophomore year that's a little closer to "normal." The campus is open and fully operating, but signs on school buildings reminding students that masks are mandatory indoors are still a stark reminder that returning to normalcy comes in stages.
"I definitely think things are as normal as can be, definitely not whatever it used to be, but I don't think there's really a term anymore for what normal is or what normal isn't," said Dayton Ward, a junior at Xavier. "So I think we're just doing our best and staying healthy."
Despite that, faculty has made it a mission to bring back a sense of security and familiarity to staff and those students who moved back to campus.
"Just today we're starting our Week of Welcome," said David Johnson, a member of the Xavier COVID-19 task force. "And this is a set of programs actually in total. We're going to have 78 across campus over the course of the next eight days and what students can connect with each other in different departments and student clubs and organizations."
The task force Johnson is part of is responsible for mandating mask-wearing on campus, as the delta variant continues to cause an increase in COVID-19 cases. So far, Xavier's student population is at least 70% vaccinated and Johnson said he hopes more will follow in the coming days.
"Both the combination of the vaccines as well as the indoor mask mandate as well as our surveillance testing, we feel confident that we're going to continue to be able to provide an on-campus experience, one that is dynamic for our students and, you know, ensures that the highest level of both learning and development are possible," he said.