Students and fans tailgating outside Huntington Bank Stadium and along fraternity row. Freshmen cheering as the Gophers marching band played the "Minnesota Rouser" and pyrotechnics shot into the air.

The University of Minnesota's flagship campus came roaring back to life last week as thousands of students returned to town ready for a fall semester they hope will be better than the last. A sense of excitement was in the air as new and returning students settled in at the Twin Cities campus, participated in school spirit events and watched the Gophers football team battle the Ohio State Buckeyes in front of a sold-out stadium.

At the same time, professors and graduate student instructors continued to raise concerns about the safety of in-person classes and events amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with the highly infectious delta variant circulating. The fall semester starts Tuesday.

"We are so happy to see you here today," U President Joan Gabel told some 6,000 masked freshmen during a new student convocation event inside 3M Arena at Mariucci on Thursday. "Let's all agree to have a great start to the school year and make the next four years the most memorable of your life."

Scores of freshmen decked out in maroon and gold made campus dormitories their new home earlier in the week. Gabel, the Goldy Gopher mascot and even Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey stopped by to help students unload their belongings.

On Wednesday night, the class of 2025 lined up in the shape of a giant "M" on the Huntington Bank Stadium football field and had its picture taken.

At the convocation, the U's largest freshmen class in more than 50 years — totaling as many as 6,700 students — sat shoulder to shoulder and received a ceremonious welcome. Gabel and student speakers urged the freshmen to make the most of their college experience. And the marching band gave a rousing performance, dancing in front of the students and urging them to sing along to school songs.

U freshman Addy Yeow said the ceremony only increased her eagerness to be on campus. "I'm very excited for college football games and being part of the U community," said Yeow, who will study kinesiology.

Pregame festivities began early Thursday ahead of the Gophers' evening game against Ohio State University.

Both Gophers and Buckeyes fans were spotted in Dinkytown visiting local bars and restaurants, which beckoned customers with signs supporting the home team. Dinkytown businesses, some still understaffed and struggling amid the pandemic, embraced the rush of customers.

"Everything is up from 2020," said Randal Gast, owner of Qdoba Mexican Eats and a member of the Dinkytown Business Alliance. "But [the pandemic] is not over yet."

Many welcomed the renewed activity at the Twin Cities campus, which was much quieter last fall with fewer students living on campus and most classes being taught online. The pandemic's impact on campus life was much more evident then, with freshmen having to abide by curfews and restrictions in dorms, and student groups, fraternities and sororities canceling in-person events.

"Isn't this great? … They're back to the way it was," said longtime season-ticket holder John Borden, 63, as he grilled in a tailgating lot near the stadium. He and his 32-year-old son, Grant, were excited to attend their first Gophers football game since before the pandemic.

At fraternity houses along University Avenue, students wearing maroon and gold overalls played beer pong as music blared from loudspeakers. One group of fraternity students sat near the street with a sign saying "You honk, we drink," cheering and raising their red cups every time a driver obliged.

An hour before kickoff, hundreds of students could be seen partying in front of the fraternity houses, most of them huddled together and not wearing masks.

U junior Dakota Heimerl, a member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity, reveled in the pregame activities but acknowledged such events likely "aren't going to last long." Heimerl works as a scribe in a local emergency room and is well aware the pandemic isn't over. He said his fraternity is supportive of mask mandates and most members are vaccinated.

"Once those lockdowns start coming again, as they will with the delta variant, we're going to be shut down," Heimerl said, adding he thinks a forced shift back to online learning is inevitable.

About 80% of the U's fall classes are slated to be taught in person. Last fall, about 70% of classes were taught online and all shifted to distance learning after Thanksgiving.

The only restrictions in place this year are indoor masking and COVID-19 vaccination requirements, measures U leaders hope will help preserve an in-person fall semester.

Many professors, staff and graduate student instructors are concerned the university is not being careful enough.

An open letter signed by hundreds of faculty, staff and students called the university's vaccination mandate "toothless and flimsy," noting it only requires students to submit the dates they were vaccinated and not the actual documentation.

It also calls for there to be more immediate consequences for those who do not comply. Students have until Oct. 8 to submit their vaccination status. If they do not, they will be "prohibited from registering for classes in the future," according to the university's website.

"It would be great if we could all just come back to in-person classes," said Husain Agha, a plant and microbial biology Ph.D. candidate at the U. "But we really need to balance whether or not that is the best thing for everybody."

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth