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Inside the outbreak: Coronavirus at college

How Christian higher education responded to a pandemic

Inside the outbreak: Coronavirus at college

A student at The King's College studies online. (Handout)

Handout

LCC International’s gym, set up as a quarantine zone for students returning from high risk countries after spring break.

Last week, with students scattered throughout Europe during spring break, administrators of Lithuania-based LCC International University scrambled. The week began with leaders hoping the 600 or so students on campus—72 percent of whom are from outside Lithuania—would stay out of Italy, a coronavirus hot zone. By week’s end, with coronavirus spreading and much of Europe locking down, they feared what would happen when students returned from places like Germany, France, Spain, and the Netherlands.

“What are we bringing back to campus now?” asked LCC International President Dr. Marlene Wall.

The Christian liberal arts school’s coronavirus task force had already decided to move to online-only education because of the pandemic. But leaders needed more action if returning students brought coronavirus back to campus, situated near the Baltic Sea in Klaipėda, Lithuania. On Saturday LCC International staff turned the university’s gymnasium into a quarantine zone. They carried in mattresses, partitioned off parts of the gym, and prepared food bags for anyone needing isolation.

No one has needed the quarantine zone yet. But it’s there if they do. About half of LCC International’s students were able to go home or self-isolate elsewhere, but the rest are still on campus, holed up in dorms. LCC staff have removed couches in common areas to discourage students from gathering. Most have access to dorm kitchens to cook. But faculty and staff keep helping. On Monday night they prepared soup for students left on campus. Instead of eating all at once in a common area, students retrieved the food in small groups. “The most important thing for us is to express our Christian identity as we care for students on campus,” Wall said.

With borders closed, those students are likely stuck on campus until the end of the semester. LCC International transitioned to online-only classes fairly easily, Wall said. But the coronavirus pandemic forced colleges and universities to make flash decisions about educating students while containing the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease the coronavirus causes. In some cases students—and their parents—had to decide how to act too.

Colleges began making decisions quickly. On March 10, three members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) had transitioned to online-only classes. By March 13, that number grew to 30 members.  As of March 16, that number spiked to 85 of CCCU’s 180 members.

One of the highest-profile Christian universities decided Monday to move to online-only education for the rest of the semester. Located in Lynchburg, Va., Liberty University (which is not a CCCU member) made the decision after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam banned gatherings of 100 or more students. But the move came after other institutions announced their own changes. In a series of tweets Sunday, Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. announced the school’s stance, saying he didn’t want to send students—who can better withstand COVID-19—into homes with older adults who might have more complications. One man on Twitter questioned the move and said he is the father of three Liberty students. Falwell tweeted back at him with an explanation and called him a dummy.

By Monday, more than 9,000 people had signed an online petition urging Liberty to transition to online-only classes. 

At least one parent didn’t wait for Liberty to shift online before getting his daughter home. David Cortwright said his daughter, a sophomore at Liberty, flew home to Austin, Texas, Sunday morning. When other campuses across the country began canceling in-person classes, he and his family expected Liberty’s announcement to come soon. But it didn’t.

His daughter quickly packed one suitcase, a backpack, and a carry-on bag and flew home. She spent one night in the Orlando airport so she could make an early-morning connection. The rest of her belongings are still in her dorm room.

Liberty’s online education program is one of the most robust in the country. Cortwright didn’t understand why the school waited so long to announce the transition, especially when other Virginia schools were: “Why would Virginia Tech take that step and not the premiere Christian university, who has the industry-leading online program?”

Many colleges had monitored the COVID-19 spread. But the wave of closures last week forced colleges to act fast.

The King’s College, a Christian liberal arts school in New York City, acted faster than its leaders had originally planned. “Emergency management is part of my background,” President Tim Gibson said. “And I’ve seen some real parallels coming into higher education.”

Gibson had a career in the Air Force before entering higher education in 2016 and becoming president of The King’s College in 2017. Administrators there sent their first communication to students about coronavirus on Feb. 6. As COVID-19 spread, they decided to take spring break this week, begin online-only classes for a week, then come back to campus on March 30.

But they shelved that plan on March 11, when they began three days of online-only classes heading into spring break. Then on Friday, President Donald Trump addressed the country with an update, and King’s shifted all classes online the rest of the semester.

“We had mentally already committed to the idea that we were going to be teaching online the week after spring break,” Gibson said. “So we had already considered the possibility that we would be doing this for a long time.”

King’s was able to move quickly because administrators adapted an inclement weather plan to the coronavirus situation, Gibson said: “The pacing just really accelerated.”

He also said leaders of other Christian colleges and universities communicate constantly about how each school responds to similar situations. And the CCCU encourages members to share resources and best practices with each other.

“Christian colleges and universities tend to really work together,” Gibson said. “We realize it’s not just about the individual purpose of our institution.”

Michael Reneau

Michael Reneau

Michael Reneau is WORLD’s deputy editor based in East Tennessee. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelReneau.