There’s good reason to cheer on campus as Notre Dame embarks on a path back to normal. Photo by Matt Cashore ’94
Student move-in days in mid-August looked like old times at Notre Dame, with resident assistants waving signs and calling out boisterous greetings to new arrivals. The marching band sounded a welcoming tone, too, as members paraded by on the way to the practice field.
With more than 92 percent of Notre Dame students and employees vaccinated against COVID-19, restrictions on campus have eased significantly as the 2021-22 school year gets underway.
As of August 31, 96 percent of students had provided proof of vaccination, and the remaining 4 percent applied for and received a religious or medical exemption, which means the entire student body met one of Notre Dame's primary COVID-related goals. By that same date, 90 percent of faculty and staff had provided proof of vaccination and 8 percent had received an exemption. (The University is continuing to work with the remaining 2 percent to either document their vaccination or to file for an exemption.)
Still, the coronavirus pandemic that has radically changed campus life during the past 18 months isn’t over. “Masks are required for visitors” read signs posted outside residence halls as parents helped their children move in. Although face coverings aren’t mandatory outdoors, some pedestrians continue to mask up as they traverse the campus.
Welcome to the 2021-22 academic year, a year that everyone — students, administrators, faculty and staff — hopes will mark a return to normal at Notre Dame.
The new normal
Gone are the ubiquitous “HERE” signs that dotted campus buildings during 2020-21 reminding students and employees of protocols designed to reduce transmission of the virus. Many aspects of campus life have returned to usual, after the rigid COVID-19-induced rules of the last academic year.
There’s a new, more relaxed feeling on campus these days. Social distancing is no longer mandated. Students walk across campus in groups, chatting made easier by the reduction in University protocols.
“It’s great. It feels normal to me,” says Clare Hill, a freshman from Illinois who was studying one recent afternoon on the Library Lawn, the outdoor student seating area the University created a year ago near the Hesburgh Library to encourage social distancing.
Under current policies, all classes are being taught in person, with classrooms, labs, libraries and other facilities operating at full capacity. In residence halls, students are welcome to have visitors from outside their dorm and dances are resuming. Student clubs and other groups are meeting in person without any COVID restrictions. Campus conferences and lectures that include visitors are permitted.
Professors and other instructors may, at their discretion, ask that students wear masks in classes, laboratories or other settings.
Senior Yanlin “Elaine” Chen is back on campus after spending 2020-21 at home in Shanghai. Travel restrictions during the pandemic prevented her and some other international students from returning to campus during the last academic year. She took a leave of absence, which delayed her graduation, and has returned to complete her degree.
“It’s really good to be back,” Chen says. Three of her professors require masks in class. “I’m very supportive of this,” she says. Chen wears a mask in all her classes as a precaution, because she recognizes the pandemic isn’t over.
Ethan Harned, a freshman from Kentucky, says it’s been easy to make new friends on campus with masks optional in most settings. Face masks are required in a few of his classes but no one is complaining, he says. “Students are pretty understanding,” he says, noting he has relatives who are immunocompromised.
The eased campus restrictions “have really restored my life,” says junior Jack Kirkham, who lives in Stanford Hall. It was hard to build close relationships in the hall last year because of the many restrictions designed to slow the spread of the virus, he says. “This year is totally different. I can feel the energy.”
Masks are required of everyone (except when eating or drinking) in public areas of some buildings. Those spaces include the Main Building, DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, the Morris Inn, the Hammes Notre Dame Bookstore, the first and second floors of Hesburgh Library and other spaces. Everyone is expected to carry a mask at all times, just in case it is needed.
Campus dining halls are back to in-person, indoor communal dining with self-service buffets and more meal options. Because of limited staffing, some campus restaurants are operating with reduced hours or days of service. (Legends restaurant is currently closed, as are the cafes in O’Shaughnessy Hall and Mendoza College of Business.) Campus Dining is posting updates here.
Notre Dame is reporting a total of 28 COVID cases (a positivity rate of 2.9 percent) diagnosed among students and employees from August 22 to 28, according to the campus dashboard. (Thirteen of the positive cases were undergraduates, 12 were employees and three were graduate students.) The campus numbers are expected to be updated weekly.
A total of 10 COVID cases were diagnosed on campus from June 1 through August 16, according to the dashboard.
With the arrival of vaccines in early 2021, the pandemic seemed to be ebbing in the United States by early summer. Then came the delta variant, which is transmitted more easily, and case numbers and hospitalizations have been climbing across the nation since early July.
As of August 31, more than 158,000 new COVID cases were being diagnosed in the United States each day, with more than 1,300 COVID deaths daily. Indiana on August 27 reported its highest daily COVID-19 case counts since January, with more than 5,000 new cases on each of the previous two days. Statewide, the seven-day positivity rate is 11.1 percent, the highest since January.
St. Joseph County on August 31 reported 131 new cases and a seven-day positivity rate of 8.9 percent.
Last spring, Notre Dame vaccinated thousands of its students, employees and their family members at an on-campus vaccine clinic. More than 90 percent of students were fully vaccinated by the time they left for summer break.
The University required all students and employees to be vaccinated by the start of fall semester. (Individuals may file requests for religious or medical exemptions.) Students and employees with vaccine exemptions are expected to wear masks indoors and are required to receive weekly surveillance testing.
“When you look at a vaccination rate of 92 percent and above at Notre Dame, Indiana, we may be, in fact, the most vaccinated city in the U.S.A. right now,” Lou Nanni ’84, ’88M.A., vice president for university relations, said during an August 25 video chat with Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A. “We’re pleased with that, and we’re very hopeful about the semester ahead, but we’re staying humble and grounded to whatever changes might await.”
What is different about Notre Dame this year?
Jenkins answered in one word: “Vaccines.” Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 not only reduces the likelihood of becoming infected, but dramatically reduces the chances of being hospitalized or dying from the disease, the priest said. “We didn’t have that last year,” he said. “We feel more at peace.”
Jenkins says he can see the difference on the faces of students. “They just feel so relieved, and so excited to be in some kind of more normal environment,” he says. “With the high vaccination rate, we feel confident that we’ll get through this.”
Many Notre Dame staff members worked remotely from the start of the pandemic in March 2020 until this summer. The vast majority returned to in-person daily work on campus by August 2. Some employees now are participating in a campus pilot program that allows them to work remotely one or two days per week with the approval of their supervisor.
The Irish will open the football season on the road September 5 at Florida State before hosting Toledo on September 11. For fans, the 2021 season is expected to be mostly a return to normal after only students and some employees were permitted to attend home games last year.
Alumni and other fans will be able to attend games in Notre Dame Stadium, which is expected to be near or at capacity. Fans will not be required to be vaccinated or to show proof of a recent negative COVID test, although the University is encouraging everyone planning to visit campus or attend games to get vaccinated.
Some other major universities with football programs — including Boston College, LSU and Oregon — have announced that fans over age 12 must show proof of vaccination or a very recent negative COVID test in order to attend games.
Kirkham, the Notre Dame junior, is enthusiastic about football season and the planned return to a full Notre Dame Stadium. Last year, the football audience was limited to mostly students, who were required to wear masks and sit in small, socially distanced groups. That didn’t allow for much traditional gameday spirit, he says.
Tailgating and other traditions will return this year. Face masks will not be required in the stands or the concourse of Notre Dame Stadium, but campus visitors must wear masks (except while eating and drinking) inside all campus buildings and on campus shuttles.
“We look forward to welcoming fans back to campus in a safe way to participate in one of the top traditions in sport — attending a game inside Notre Dame Stadium,” university vice president and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick said in announcing 2021 gameday policies. “We ask that our fans help us keep our community safe by being fully vaccinated prior to coming to Notre Dame Stadium and our area.” See more gameday details here.
For the first two home games, campus parking lots will open at 8 a.m. Football weekend traditions — including Football Fridays outside the Eck Center and the Player Walk on game days — are set to take place.
A pep rally is scheduled to occur the evening before the first home game, with members of the public welcome to attend. (The location hasn’t yet been announced.)
Notre Dame switched to mobile-only ticketing for games and parking passes this season. Also, vendors and concession stands inside Notre Dame Stadium will no longer accept cash. Payment by credit or debit card will be accepted.
All this planning is a work in progress amid a national landscape that is constantly changing because of COVID-19. Notre Dame leaders say they’ll continue to monitor the pandemic — including local, state and national conditions — in the weeks ahead. Gameday policies will change if conditions merit it.
Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.