Most of them won’t attend classes in person, but thousands of Liberty University students will return to the evangelical Virginia campus as the coronavirus continues to spread.
Most of the students are not at risk because of their age, President Jerry Falwell Jr. argued in an interview with the News and Advance in Lynchburg. The president of the private, Christian college is a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump.
Liberty's move is remarkable as the coronavirus spreads across the United States, with more than 51,000 cases and 674 deaths as of Tuesday afternoon. Hundreds of universities have closed their campuses and asked students to leave crowded dorms. Some have allowed students who can’t move back home – international students or those without secure housing – but most campuses are becoming emptier, not fuller.
A request for comment to the university was not immediately returned on Tuesday.
Earlier this month, Liberty put all of its classes online after Gov. Ralph Northam banned gatherings of more than 100 people. Since students left for spring break on March 13, the governor's ban has become more strict: Gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited, and non-essential businesses and K-12 schools are closed through April 23.
In a press release, Falwell said university leaders had weighed whether to extend the university’s spring break or have students return as planned. They chose the latter.
“Our thinking was, 'Let's get them back as soon as we can — the ones who want to come back,'" Falwell said.
Meanwhile, much of the country is working from home. Other businesses have been closed, either voluntarily or by government orders.
Not at Liberty. Faculty and staff at Liberty have been instructed to "report to work as normal,” though they have been given the option to use vacation or sick days if they have “concerns in regards to COVID-19 and the impact on older relatives or children.”
Students have the option to return to campus or to finish their studies where they have stayed over spring break. Computer labs, academic buildings and the campus fitness center remain open, though the campus is closed to visitors. Dining halls also remain open, though only for takeout.
The move to have students return earned a rebuke from Treney Tweedy, the mayor of Lynchburg, where Liberty is located. She said was “surprised and disappointed.”
“I am concerned for the students, faculty and employees at Liberty University, and I am also very concerned for the residents of the Lynchburg community,” Tweedy said. “Liberty University is an important part of this community; however, I believe it was a reckless decision to bring students back on campus at this time."
And Marybeth Davis Baggett, an English professor at the university, wrote a column in Religion News Services imploring the university's board to overturn Falwell's decision and to shut the campus down.
"Many students, faculty and staff have health conditions that would make COVID-19 difficult to fight," she wrote. "Liberty is not a bubble where the virus would be contained. Instead, its population comes into regular contact with those in the Lynchburg community, putting their health and lives at risk as well."
Falwell has earned a reputation as an outspoken defender of Trump. Earlier this month, he said on "Fox and Friends" that many people were “overreacting” to the coronavirus. The fervor was an attempt to undermine the president, he said.
In his statement announcing the university would remain open, Falwell said other colleges that have cut back services had gone too far.
“While some colleges basically threw their hands up and just shut down and left the problem for somebody else to deal with, Liberty's executive staff rolled their sleeves up,” he said.
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