SAN JOSE (KPIX) — San Jose State University welcomed tens of thousands of students back to campus for in-person learning Thursday with fanfare, mask-wearing and a mix of worry and optimism.

Speaking at a press event and flanked by cheerleaders, Spartans quarterback Nick Starkel, Irena Muradyan from the women’s 2021 Mountain West Championship tennis team, San Jose mayor Sam Liccardo and SJSU president Mary Papazian addressed the lingering uneasiness from the pandemic.

“I want to acknowledge that I know for many people there is still great anxiety about being back in person after having been away for so long. We will do so in a way that is safe, that keeps health and safety at the forefront,” Papazian said.

Like the vast majority of other educational institutions and school campuses, the 36,000 students and 4,000 faculty and staff must wear masks while indoors. Masks are strongly recommended outdoors when social distancing is not feasible.

The CSU system is also requiring all students and staff to be fully vaccinated by Sept. 30 but will allow for some religious and medical exemptions.

Returning students will notice changes to the schedule, as lecture halls and classrooms will remain vacant for at least 30 minutes in between classes to ensure ventilation systems have ample time to refresh the air.

Starkel, who helped lead the football team to an undefeated season last year that culminated with a Mountain West Championship, said playing before capacity crowds would help energize the team.

The Spartans’ historic 2020 season ended when they fell to Ball State in the Arizona Bowl after six players, including five starters, were unavailable to play, presumably due to positive COVID-19 tests.

This year, the majority of last season’s starters are returning but Starkel stopped short of making any predictions.

“Our team is very close to getting fully vaccinated and we are excited about getting fans back,” Starkel said.

The large infusion of students in the downtown core will also provide a much-needed boost for businesses heavily dependent on foot traffic, like Nirvana Soul on First Street. The Black-owned cafe opened in November just as much of the state was heading into the holiday lockdown.

Co-owner Dap Ashaolu said they have never experienced “normal” crowds and have extended their hours in anticipation of increased business.

“I think it’s going to be the difference between just kind of making it and starting to be a little bit more profitable,” Ashaolu said.

For Jerome Holloway, a senior majoring in psychology, returning to a bustling campus was bewildering since he had stayed on campus through much of the pandemic.

“It’s weird,” Holloway said. “But it’s great because I know that means we’re one step closer to getting back to some normalcy in life.”