Hundreds of students returned to Liberty University after spring break this week, even as colleges and universities across the country have sent students home to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Earlier this month, Jerry Falwell Jr., the school's president, said on Fox News that people were overreacting to the coronavirus pandemic and that the campus would open as usual this week. A few days later, after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam banned gatherings of 100 people or more, Falwell reversed course and said most classes would be conducted online.
But the school's decision to allow students to continue to live on campus if they choose sparked outrage from some, who worry that the novel coronavirus could spread rapidly with so many people in such close quarters.
Northam, concerned about Liberty University's move, directed a member of his administration to call Falwell Tuesday, according to a Northam staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private phone conversation. The staffer confirmed that the two spoke but did not indicate that the issue had been resolved.
"All universities and colleges have a responsibility to protect public health, to keep their students safe, keep their communities safe," the staff member said. "And that means following strict adherence to the governor's executive order. And Liberty University's no exception to that."
Some colleges with international students or even homeless students don't have the option of letting them leave campus, the staffer said. But the number of such students is relatively small, so social distancing can be maintained.
In an interview with The Washington Post on Tuesday, Falwell said Liberty is "abiding by the letter of the law." He said he told the governor's office that what Liberty was doing was no different than what other schools were doing.
"But we're Liberty," Falwell said, "so we get picked on."
Falwell described the measures the university is taking in consultation with health experts, including the switch to online instruction for most classes, surfaces being cleaned hourly and meals served as takeout only. They put signs on chairs to remind people not to sit too close together, he said, and are using only every third computer in the computer center. The fitness center was limited to 10 people at a time, he said, but the school plans to close it Tuesday night.
Falwell said between 1,000 and 2,000 students were on campus this week, including students renting apartments in town. "I'm guessing," he said. "We really don't know."
Falwell said he had heard from students that many were planning to return home to finish their studies because the campus was so quiet. Student leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
"Many students, faculty and staff have health conditions that would make covid-19 difficult to fight," Marybeth Davis Baggett, a professor of English at Liberty, wrote in an opinion piece for Religion News Service. "And of course, 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. It is unconscionable that the leadership of the university is fully implementing Falwell's politically motivated and rash policy that unnecessarily risks an unmanageable outbreak here in Lynchburg."
The school took other steps to keep people on campus healthy, according to school officials: The campus is closed to visitors, with "no trespassing" signs posted at entrances. Only students and prospective students, their families, employees and people "doing business with the university" are allowed on campus. A building has been designated as a quarantine site for people with symptoms.
“We have a great story to tell,” Falwell said in a news release. “We think Liberty’s practices will become the model for all colleges to follow in the fall, if coronavirus is still an issue.”