Tens of thousands of students and faculty returned to LSU's campus Monday for the for the university's first in-person semester in 18 months.

By mid-morning, students filled the parking lots, swarmed the quad and packed into classrooms. But, as peers and professors alike basked in the familiarity of a busy campus, they realized things weren't entirely back to normal from COVID.

Amanda Viloria, history senior, said she was shocked when she walked into her first class Monday morning.

“I haven’t seen 25 people sitting that close to each other in a classroom since 2019,” Viloria said. “Everyone was wearing masks, but it just felt off.”

In Coates Hall, students sat inches apart in classrooms filled with between 50 and 70 full desks. Most professors had room to stand several feet away from the first row, protected by a plexiglass screen.

Joni Butcher, communication professor, said she has 50 students in one class, but she doesn’t feel unsafe in her classroom.

“I wasn’t nervous to come to campus at all,” Butcher said. “I think it’s better for all of us if students are learning here rather than behind a screen.”

Butcher continued to teach in-person classes when faculty had the option to teach remotely, a choice that she said she made with her students in mind.

“It’s like any virus,” she said. “If students are sick, they should take care of their health, but to be psychologically and socially healthy, they need to be on campus. We can’t live in fear.”

Aaron Jacobs, mass communication senior, said he didn’t feel fear from his classmates on their first day back. Instead, he said he felt quite the opposite.

“Campus is electric,” Jacobs said. “There’s this obvious energy in the air. It’s like even though we’re all about to have school stress again, we’re just happy to have normal back.”

Viloria said she is going to need time to adjust to “normal” after three semesters of online classes.

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“I feel like it’s my first day of freshman year again,” Viloria said. “I’m going to have to learn how to schedule and take notes and ride the bus again. But I don’t care because I get to be on campus.”

Will Mari, mass communication professor, said he has 80 students in one of his classes as opposed to the spring semester, when he had five or six students in a classroom. He said he is happy to accommodate wary students with Zoom lectures.

“Several students said they were stressed about bringing COVID back to their families, which I sympathize with,” Mari said.

LSU allows faculty to advocate for their students to get vaccinated, and Mari did exactly that.

“I encouraged them to get vaccinated for the safety of my family and theirs,” he said.

Laith Druen, mechanical engineering senior, said as familiar as his campus looked on Monday, he can’t help but remember how far from normal life is for most of Louisiana.

“The pandemic is worse than it has ever been,” Druen said. “I missed seeing people, but it feels like LSU is forcing normalcy in a time where complacency can be fatal.”

The university's COVID protocol requires students to fill out a daily symptom tracker that either permits or prohibits their arrival to campus. LSU administrators have said security personnel would be stationed to ask students for their confirmation emails, but Viloria said that effort is fruitless.

“No one fills out the daily symptom tracker,” she said. “And no one asks to see it to let us into buildings. There never has been any accountability with that.”

Professors are not allowed to ask to see a student’s confirmation email, and LSU has yet to release the final data detailing how many students are vaccinated or COVID-negative, so there is no guarantee that students have fulfilled the requirements to be on campus.

Jacobs said he feels more comfortable being on campus because he is vaccinated, and he looks forward to the day LSU mandates vaccines.

After the FDA approved Pfizer’s COVID vaccine Monday morning, Ballard said that LSU is reviewing the approval with plans to implement a mandate and will “communicate logistics to the LSU community soon.”

Schools in the University of Louisiana system mandated COVID immunization Monday afternoon.

Email Caroline Savoie at CSavoie@TheAdvocate.com or follow her on Twitter at @CarolineSavo.