Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s decision to reopen the school this week amid the country’s worsening outbreak of the coronavirus sent shockwaves across social media and the academic community on Tuesday. While many schools across the country have chosen to cancel classes or move them online, the leader of the private evangelical Christian college in Lynchburg, Va., decided it was best for students and faculty to come back to campus to resume their semester. “Our thinking was, ‘Let's get them back as soon as we can,’” Falwell said in a statement.
On Monday, Falwell walked through campus and welcomed back students who had returned from spring break. “They were talking about being glad to be back,” he said. “I was joking about how they pretty much had the whole place to themselves and told all of them to enjoy it.”
Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb estimated that about 1,700 students (out of a resident population of 15,000 and a total enrollment of 110,000, including online students) were back on campus as of Wednesday. “There has been an overwhelmingly positive response by students and parents by phone, email and text,” Lamb said in a phone interview with Yahoo News. “There will always be positive and negative reactions to something like this … but students get a chance to finish their semester and not waste their time.”
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam imposed a 100-person gathering limit across the state, which the university plans to follow. The school has also decided to move all instruction online, except for certain programs and labs. Sodexo, the university’s dining services provider, has been adhering to a strict 10-patron limit, while enabling students to use their meal plans.
For some Lynchburg residents, the school’s accommodations don’t go far enough. Lynchburg City Manager Bonnie Svrcek says she was not pleased with the decision to reopen the university. “We could not be more disappointed in the action that Jerry took in telling students they could come back and take their online classes on campus," she said.
English professor Marybeth Davis Baggett called on Liberty’s board of trustees to overrule Falwell’s decision. “Many students, faculty, and staff have health conditions that would make COVID-19 difficult to fight,” Baggett wrote in an op-ed. “And of course, Liberty is not a bubble where the virus would be contained.”
Clayton Didinsky, a computer science major who suffers from mitochondrial disease, told Yahoo News that he was frustrated by the decision. “It made me a little bit angry,” he said. “When the swine flu was here a couple of years ago, I got it and I was in the hospital for a month. If I get this illness, I'm going to be so sick from it and I just can't be put at risk.”
Didinsky said he believes the president had good intentions in his attempt to return the country to normal, but the school “is not executing it properly.” To stay as safe as possible, Didinsky chose to drive from the school to his home in California and finish his remaining classes online. It’s a decision that has come at a substantial financial loss to his family as he will not get back the money he paid for his room and board.
Freshman Olivia Damron has chosen to return to campus. “I wanted to come back, so I was grateful that we were given that option,” she said. “I consider Liberty’s campus to be my home and I knew that regardless of how many people are here, the Lord was calling me to be here for some reason.”
Damron believes that the university has taken adequate steps to keep the students safe.
“They've taken so many measures to keep people socially distant and to keep things clean on campus,” Damron said. “I know I have a couple of friends that are with me on campus and they have the same mindset as I do, just, let's all stay safe.”
But Didinsky questions whether Falwell’s top priority really is the safety of Liberty’s students and staff.
“A lot of people thought that it was a political move for him,” said Didinsky. “Jerry was just going to follow the move of the president because he is such a big supporter and there's nothing wrong with supporting our president. But I think he also needs to keep in mind the students and that the school is a school and it's not a political gain for him.”
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