For the first time since September 2019, the first day of fall classes at Northwestern University Tuesday seemed like every other first day before COVID-19 — until you noticed the masks inside classrooms, and felt the concern that some still have.

“I’m glad we’re on campus,” said Louisa Ummel, a junior psychology major, “but it’s definitely strange. The professors are probably nervous with 70 people in their classes,” she added..

Ummel is one of NU’s 21,000 undergraduate and graduate students who were finally able to say goodbye to remote learning, and walk across campus to class rather than walking to their computer at home and firing up the laptop.

Ummel spent the last part of her first year at Northwestern, and all of her second year living at home and taking classes on her computer, due to COVID-related restrictions on in-person learning.

Unlike most Northwestern students, Ummel did not have to worry about going halfway across the nation or the world to get home for remote learning. She grew up in Evanston, and stayed with her parents while campus buildings were off-limits.

Waiting for the light at Sheridan Road and Chicago Avenue.

Despite seeing fellow students who remained in Evanston, Ummel said it was hard to make new friends.

“I felt separate from school and all it has to offer,” she said. Missing in-person sporting events was a real loss from the normal college experience.

Despite Northwestern’s close to 100% vaccination rate for students and staff, Ummel said she’s still nervous about COVID-19 and the chance of breakthrough infections.

Still, walking through campus, having classes as they were intended to be, and looking forward to football and other staples of college life in a college town almost made it possible to forget the past 18 months — until you had to put on your mask before going into the classroom.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.