Liberty University welcomes back students despite coronavirus
Liberty University welcomed its students back to campus this week, despite explicit social distancing guidelines from both the White House and the state of Virginia amid the coronavirus outbreak.
University President Jerry Falwell Jr., a longtime supporter of President Trump, said in a statement on Monday that he had been in conversation with the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia to determine how to allow students who wanted to return to the evangelical college's Lynchburg campus to do so while still following the guidelines that have been put forward.
"I was on a conference call with other college presidents and representatives from private colleges, and we listened to what other schools were doing," Falwell said. "Many were throwing their hands up and saying they would just close and others were going to extend their breaks. At that time, we were on Spring Break, so we had time to work on it."
He added: "Our thinking was, 'Let's get them back as soon as we can - the ones who want to come back."
Multiple universities, school districts and in some cases entire states - including Virginia - have canceled classes for the rest of the academic year in the face of the pandemic.
Falwell told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that somewhere between several hundred to more than 5,000 students were expected to be living in Liberty's dorms as classes resumed Monday.
"I think we have a responsibility to our students - who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here - to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they've already paid for and to not interrupt their college life," he said.
Despite the fact that almost all of Liberty's classes have been moved online, staff and faculty are still expected to come to work as usual.
Falwell noted that the dining halls are operating in a takeout-only capacity and that special classes that need to meet in person, such as labs, will adhere to Gov. Ralph Northam's (D) 10-person gathering limit.
Falwell has given voice to conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. Earlier in the month while on Fox News he said, "You remember the North Korean leader promised us a Christmas present for America? Back in December. Could it be they got together with China and this is that present? I don't know. But it really is something strange going on."
He told the Times-Dispatch that the university was protecting the students by having them on campus.
"I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk and they don't have conditions that put them at risk."
Virginia has more than 200 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and Northam on Monday ordered all nonessential businesses to close by the start of Wednesday, though it is unclear how this mandate will affect the college.
While the Lynchburg campus is open to students, faculty, staff, prospective students and their family members, it is closed to other visitors.
The decision to have students on campus makes Liberty an outlier among universities around the country. Most schools have lengthened their spring breaks, moved learning online and instructed their students to return home.
The Hill reached out to Liberty but was referred to the university's prior statements.