LYNCHBURG — As the coronavirus threatens to spread across the Lynchburg region, Liberty University officials are preparing to welcome back up to 5,000 students from spring break this week.
Defying a national trend of campus closures, President Jerry Falwell Jr. has invited students to return to residence halls and has directed faculty members to continue to report to campus even as most classes move online.
In an interview Sunday night, Falwell said somewhere between several hundred to more than 5,000 students are expected to live in campus dorms, where they will continue coursework online rather than in classrooms.
Meanwhile, hundreds of professors and instructors without a valid health exemption will come to campus to hold office hours.
“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,” Falwell said.
Falwell’s decision leaves Liberty as an outlier among the scores of colleges and universities across the country that have shut down to help limit the spread of the disease known as COVID-19.
The threat of the coronavirus became more immediate for the Lynchburg region this weekend when the Virginia Department of Health announced cases in Amherst and Bedford counties. Statewide, as of Monday evening, more than 250 people have contracted the disease and seven have died.
In response to the widening pandemic, several nearby institutions have instructed faculty to work remotely and have limited dorms to students unable to return home. At the University of Lynchburg, 19 students continue to live in dorms while at Randolph College just five remain on campus.
In contrast with other schools, Liberty’s dorms, academic buildings, library and fitness center remain open to students.
The university has taken some steps to help slow the spread of the virus. Gatherings in campus buildings, including a handful of classes still holding in-person meetings, are capped at 10 people in accordance with an order by Gov. Ralph Northam.
Similarly, dining halls are only providing take-out service and campus visits have been suspended.
On Monday, Northam directed all non-essential businesses to close by the start of Wednesday. Non-essential services were identified as all places of indoor public amusement as well as fitness centers, and salons that cannot comply with social distancing guidelines. It is unclear how that order will impact Liberty.
Falwell, who has publicly downplayed the threat of the virus in recent weeks, said he is confident the school has taken the proper steps to prepare for a campus outbreak. He said Liberty officials have identified an old hotel owned by the university as a place to quarantine students who fall ill.
“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.”
Some Liberty faculty members have questioned whether Falwell’s actions have gone far enough.
In a blunt opinion piece published by Religion News Service on Sunday, longtime English Professor Marybeth Davis Baggett called on Liberty’s board of trustees to overrule Falwell’s decision to keep campus open.
“Many students, faculty, and staff have health conditions that would make COVID-19 difficult to fight,” Baggett wrote. “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.”
In an interview with The News & Advance, Baggett said she has refused to return to campus during the course of the pandemic.
“Lives are at stake,” Baggett, who plans to join the Houston Baptist University faculty this fall after 17 years at Liberty, said. “I think this decision is a recipe for disaster and I have been trying to push that as much as I have been able to internally.”
For some students life on campus has already resumed, albeit under unusual circumstances.
Senior Christian Griffith returned to his east campus dorm Thursday. He said of the about 70 students who normally live in the building, only around 20 have since moved back in.
“It's a pretty empty campus,” he said. “The number of students staying seems to be low.”
Other students returned only briefly to meet a Tuesday night deadline to complete the move out process. According to an announcement sent to students Saturday, the university is now considering offering refunds or credits to students who choose to move off campus.
Though Griffith is concerned about the swiftly spreading virus, the Charlottesville native said he is happy to have a place to stay in Lynchburg. Both of his parents work at the University of Virginia Medical Center and living at home, he said, could pose a greater health risk than living in a dorm.
To protect himself, Griffith has stocked up on food and plans to spend most of his day indoors binging television shows, studying for classes and reading the Bible.
“I'm not going to leave unless I need to,” he said.