Liberty University, a private evangelical Christian college, in Lynchburg, VA, has made the decision to allow students to return to campus. While mostly optional, the decision goes against warning by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Gov. Ralph Northam’s statewide order banning gatherings of 10 or more people.
According to Liberty’s website, the majority of classes are transitioning to an online format to finish the spring semester. Students are welcome to return to campus to complete their courses online, or they may complete them remotely. However, certain programs are not transitioning online. Liberty’s aviation, medicine, nursing, and osteopathic programs will not be offered online and neither will labs or other performance courses.
The students who have made the return to campus were required to fill out an Intent to Return form and as of Monday, over 1,100 students have returned. In addition to students, faculty and staff were required to return which has resulted in several professors speaking out against the reopening. One professor, Marybeth Davis Baggett, wrote, “As a Liberty faculty member, I have been told that my colleagues and I must conduct our classes from our offices, even though that instruction is now being delivered virtually. We are also expected to hold office hours and welcome students for face-to-face interaction.” Baggett goes on to say that Liberty’s is not a bubble that will protect students from getting sick or spreading the sickness to other Lynchburg citizens.
Liberty University’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., and his decisions have even sparked a petition for his removal. Falwell has frequently made statements showing his lack of concern towards COVID-19 and its severity. On Mar. 18 he joined radio host Todd Starnes to discuss the effect the virus may have on Liberty’s future. Falwell discusses spring break activities, particularly the gathering of large groups, and how they’re harmless, saying “It’s fortunate that this disease, this flu, doesn’t have a high mortality rate for young people, because they’re the ones that are not worried about it, and I’m not worried about it.” He also believes that the media is to blame for the shutdown of schools and businesses, and that the overhype is just a way to destroy the economy and hurt Pres. Trump.
Throughout the backlash, there are some who commend Falwell’s decision to reopen campus. One Liberty professor, Benjamin Esswein, told his class that there is no evidence quarantine works and that they should disregard state measures. This statement came after he was informed by a student that she would be unable to complete an assignment requiring her to visit a museum as a result of the mandated closures of non-essential businesses. Esswein, when then asked by students if they could use virtual museums to complete an assignment, denied the requests and proceeded to tell his class: “Be safe about it, but remaining active is the best way to fight off the virus, you should try to go to a park or other area that might have a free-standing exhibit. “You should leave your house, it’s unhealthy to stay inside for the rest of the semester.”
According to their website, Liberty is continuing to monitor COVID-19 and its changes. They write that officials are meeting constantly and keeping frequent contact with health officials, as well as following guidance from the CDC. Though their current actions have been against that guidance, it is uncertain what the rest of Liberty’s spring semester may bring.