This article was originally published in the August 2021 Back to School edition of The DN. 

As University of Nebraska-Lincoln students, faculty and staff return to campus, Zoom will no longer be part of daily routines, and face coverings for COVID-19 will no longer cover smiles.

Through UNL’s grit and glory, the true, in-person Husker aura will return.

On March 12, 2020, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green announced that the university would be moving to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, changing UNL overnight. Confusion spread about what the future of UNL would look like. Weeks turned into months, and the return to a “normal” environment did not seem likely. 

But the arrival of the 2021-22 academic year brings hope that this year could look and feel like a pre-COVID-19 year. 

“I think there is a renewed sense of energy and excitement about the fall semester,” Amy Goodburn, the senior associate vice chancellor and dean of undergraduate education, said. 

This fall semester will not consist of social distancing, spitting into test tubes or getting noses swabbed for fully vaccinated individuals. The struggle of getting school internet to work seconds before a Zoom class will change to physically rushing to classes instead. Many events and engagement opportunities students could not participate in last year will return in the fall. 

“I do think students will have a lot more opportunities to engage with one another in person and to enjoy all the benefits the residential college experience provides,” she said. 

Students will also be able to attend sporting events for the first time since early 2020. On July 7, Nebraska announced that Memorial Stadium would operate at 100% capacity for home games in the fall, and the Nebraska Athletic Department made a similar announcement for home volleyball matches in June. 

Association of Students of the University of Nebraska President Batool Ibrahim, now in her senior year, said she’ll be able to attend her first Husker football game.

“I am going to finally be able to check it off of my Husker experience checklist,” she said. 

Goodburn said the COVID-19 Task Force continues to meet and work with the local health department to ensure the proper protocols are set in place to maintain the campus community’s well-being. 

“The university expects to continue its close working relationship with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department to reach decisions in the best interest of both the campus community and the community as a whole,” Leslie Reed, UNL’s public affairs director, said in an email.

University officials will continue to urge students to get vaccinated, Reed said, but the COVID-19 vaccine will not be mandatory. UNL created a voluntary vaccine registry for UNL community members to upload their vaccination records and be exempt from mandatory COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated or non-exempt individuals in the fall. 

The registry also enters people into a vaccine lottery with weekly and grand prizes. 

The grand prize for five students is one year’s worth of resident undergraduate tuition and fees: $9,872. One faculty or staff member has the chance to win a trip for two to watch the Huskers play football against Northwestern in Dublin, Ireland in August 2022 with Green and his wife.

The hope is that this lottery will encourage students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated if they have not yet, according to Goodburn. 

ASUN and student leaders also continue to encourage students to get vaccinated by answering questions for them on just about anything — COVID-19 related and not, including the vaccine, —according to Ibrahim. 

Ibrahim said she gets input from students before attending the COVID-19 Task Force meetings, which she joined as ASUN president. 

“I am attending these COVID[-19] Task Force [meetings] and acting as a liaison between the student body and upper administration,” Ibrahim said. 

Over the summer, ASUN created a Google Form students could anonymously fill out with any questions or concerns they have regarding the vaccine, which allowed ASUN to connect with students.

University staff worked on adding chairs back to classrooms and removing the infamous zip ties from seats in anticipation of the upcoming semester, Goodburn said. 

Two committees formed to address a return for the 2020-21 academic semesters — the Forward to Fall and Spring Open committees — worked to ensure a safe return to campus for respective semesters. 

But the return for the 2020-21 academic year required modifications to campus life. Face coverings were required except for very few circumstances on campus, mandatory testing began for the spring semester and many classes were only offered remotely. Memorial Stadium, which becomes the third largest city in the state on game days, held no fans until the Red-White Spring Game

The University of Nebraska system had to make difficult spending decisions, with President Ted Carter unveiling NU’s plan to address $43 million in permanent spending cuts, spread out over three years. UNL, taking its share of the system-wide cuts, had to face a shortfall of $38 million. Into year two of its pandemic response, Carter and Green are hopeful NU and UNL will be in positions of strength.

On April 20, 2021, UNL offered its first of three vaccine clinics for UNL students, faculty and staff as well as surrounding higher education campuses. On May 8, 2021, spring 2021 undergraduates were able to walk across the stage in Memorial Stadium in a commencement ceremony.

In hopes of providing a normal graduation for the classes who graduated virtually in 2020, UNL is offering a chance for an in-person graduation on Aug. 13 and 14 at Pinnacle Bank Arena. 

While the journey has been filled with many challenges, Goodburn reflected on the last year and how appreciative she was for all the effort students put into making sure the university remained safe from the coronavirus. 

“We have the best students in the country,” she said. “I am so excited to have them come back in the fall.”