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Face Masks Can’t Hide Smiles on First Day Back in Classroom

Students and Faculty Celebrate Return to In-person Learning

A student holds a paper while another student looks over his shoulder in a classroom Photo by Ed Brennen
Students look over the syllabus for their Calculus 3 course with Asst. Teaching Prof. Erica Yankowskas on UML's first day back to in-person learning.

09/03/2021
By Ed Brennen

Computer engineering majors Cameron Albers and Chad Abboud got to know each other as freshmen last year during virtual classes on Zoom.

On the first day of the fall 2021 semester, they finally met in person.

Waiting in a crowd of students outside Olsen Hall 401 for their first Calculus 3 class, Albers and Abboud recognized each other — in spite of their face coverings — and said their long-overdue hellos. 

“It’s pretty cool to meet people that you only knew from a screen,” said Albers, a sophomore from Braintree, Massachusetts, after grabbing a desk in the second row.

Like most everyone in Asst. Teaching Prof. Erica Yankowskas’ Calculus 3 class — and, indeed, across the UMass Lowell campus — Albers was thrilled to be back in a classroom after 18 months of virtual learning during the pandemic.
A woman in a yellow sweater and sequin face mask greets a student in a classroom Photo by Ed Brennen
Asst. Teaching Prof. Erica Yankowskas chats with a student after her first Calculus 3 class of the fall.

“It feels amazing. I definitely have a new appreciation for in-person learning,” he said. “Sitting in a big lecture hall with a bunch of people and seeing everyone get locked in, it forces you to pay attention.”

One of his new calculus classmates, sophomore biomedical engineering major Julia Measmer, agreed.

After spending her first year of college learning virtually — with the exception of a Chemistry 2 lab on campus last spring — Measmer couldn’t wait to get in the classroom. In fact, she and her River Hawk Village roommates walked around campus the day before classes began, mapping out where they needed to go.

“We’ve been bouncing off the walls the past few days,” said the Billerica, Massachusetts, native. “There are so many people on campus. I don’t think I’ve seen this many people in ... forever.”

Over at Falmouth Hall, James Alhussaini was the first student to arrive for Visiting Instructor Elissa Magnant’s noontime Business Ethics class.
A female student in a face mask types on an ipad while sitting next to a male student at a desk in a classroom Photo by Ed Brennen
Students tap on their devices during their first Business Ethics class of the semester with Visiting Instructor Elissa Magnant.

“I’m happier than a pig in you-know-what to be back,” said Alhussaini, who spent nearly two decades working in biotech research and development before returning to school to get a business degree with a concentration in finance.

“Being almost 40, I have to be in the classroom and associating with people,” the Methuen, Massachusetts, native said.

Some students, of course, discovered that they preferred the convenience of virtual learning during the pandemic.

“I got used to doing everything from home. It allowed me to have more personal time,” said Valentin Boulas, a senior business major (with a concentration in international business) from Andover, Massachusetts.

Boulas said it was “a little strange” getting to South Campus for his French 4 class at 9 a.m.
A female student with dark hair wearing a face mask listens in class Photo by Ed Brennen
A student looks on attentively during her Calculus 3 class.

“It’s going to take some time to get back in the routine, but it’s nice to return to some sense of normalcy,” he said.

The return to full, in-person learning was a big deal for instructors, too.

“Being with students is why you do this job,” said Magnant, who taught one of the few in-person courses on campus last spring, before vaccinations were widely available.

“Last semester, the pandemic was in our face every day. Trying to give students hope was harder. Now, we’re going to get out of it,” she said.

Yankowskas, who took part in a virtual workshop for faculty over the summer on how to get the fall semester off to a strong start, was surprised how anxious she was to return to the classroom.
Two students wearing face masks listen in class Photo by Ed Brennen
Students are required to be vaccinated and wear face masks in classes and labs this fall.

“I felt like a little kid the night before my birthday — I had trouble sleeping, I was so excited,” said Yankowskas, who arrived for her first Calculus 3 class wearing a colorful sequined facemask (faculty are allowed to remove face coverings while teaching).

For the next 45 minutes, Yankowskas enthusiastically zig-zagged across the front of the room, asking students how they were doing while going over the syllabus. When a student arrived a few minutes late, Yankowskas exclaimed, “Welcome to the party!”

“She’s a ball of joy,” said Bianca Pineda, a senior biomedical engineering major from Lawrence, Massachusetts, as she packed up her things after class. “I feel like I was smiling the whole time.”