Anya Lam Zimet, a sophomore engineering physics student, works on her laptop under a tree on the first day of classes at the University of Maine on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

University of Maine students Monday returned to the classroom en masse for the first time since the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic, a joyful occasion for students on the Orono campus as they felt a semblance of normalcy despite the accelerating spread of the delta variant.

Hundreds walked the campus on Monday, some wearing masks and some not, laughing with old friends and meeting new ones. It was a far cry from times at the college since early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic made in-person classes untenable and emptied the campus.

“All I’ve known is online classes,” said Anya Lam Zimet, a sophomore engineering physics major. “It actually does feel like I’m in college now.”

While masks were required indoors, most students viewed the rule as a small sacrifice to get back to in-person-classes.

“It’s just another cautionary step that I don’t mind taking,” said Cameron Castro, a junior marine science major.

Cameron Castro, a junior marine science major, smiles on the first day of classes at the University of Maine on Monday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Students who are not yet fully vaccinated as well as those who requested medical or religious exemptions are required to be tested every week as they start the semester. Without an exemption, they have until Oct. 15 to show proof of full vaccination. Students learning fully remotely are not subject to the vaccination requirement.

Robert Dana, vice president of student life, said he had heard from only a small number of students opposed to the vaccine requirement. In interviews on Monday, students generally said they were happy about the requirement, saying it made them feel safer on a campus swarming with people.

“When you run an enterprise of this size, scope and scale, you have to take into account the greater good,” Dana said. “Having a vaccine requirement makes us a safer community.”

About 93 percent of residence hall students and 69 percent of non-residential students at UMaine have verified their vaccination status with the university so far. Given that most residential students are first-year students, they generally fill out such forms more quickly, and incoming students have also had to show evidence of other vaccines.

Students walk along the mall at the University of Maine on Monday Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

About 200 to 250 students have received a religious or medical exemption, Dana said. UMaine had more than 13,000 students enrolled last academic year.

Veronica Bentley, a first-year political science major, was seeing her first day of college ever. The student from Quincy, Massachusetts, said she was most excited about meeting new people and making new connections. She didn’t think the virus would be an impediment to either of those things.

Claire Bourett, a junior molecular and cellular biology student, had already enjoyed the class she had in person. Calling remote learning very “impersonal,” she was excited to get back in the classroom.

“I have lab-based classes, mostly,” Bourett said, “so doing them online is a complete detriment to my education.”

Not everyone saw things the same way.

Mairead Thistle, a senior studying math and civil engineering, said it was somewhat concerning to see so many students on campus now. She had also noticed that there was less social distancing in classrooms.

For Thistle, one of many older students who experienced university life pre-pandemic, a complete return to normalcy will depend on the future of the delta variant and vaccination rates beyond the campus.

“It feels closer to normal,” Thistle said, “but we’re not quite there yet.”

Priya Bhatta, a junior finance student, was beaming with joy to get back to classes, though she acknowledged that remote learning had its perks as well.

Priya Bhatta, a junior finance student, smiles on the first day of classes at the University of Maine in Orono on Monday. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

“Sometimes I miss the online courses. I’m like, ‘oh my God, I wish I could just stay in bed and watch the lecture,’” Bhatta said with a laugh. “But at the same time, I cannot be that person. I just want to get back to normal.”