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Liberty in a pandemic

The largest Christian university grabs the spotlight—again

Liberty in a pandemic

Students at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, congregate while walking around on March 31. (AMANDA ANDRADE-RHOADES/AFP/Getty Images)

When senior Calum Best returned to Liberty University’s campus from spring break on March 20, it looked more like a ghost town than the busy epicenter of Christian higher education. When he left, about 8,000 students lived in Liberty’s dorms. By the time classes resumed on March 23, only about 1,900 were on the Lynchburg, Va., campus.

Those students’ daily lives looked much different than they did in the days before spring break. On March 16, after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced a ban on gatherings of 100 people or more, Liberty announced it would move most classes online, as most colleges and universities in the United States had already done. Liberty allowed students to return to the campus after spring break, but the university enacted stricter cleaning and social distancing measures.

When Best and other students returned for the week of March 23, Liberty University police officers guarded the main dining hall, not allowing in more than 10 people at a time. Students could only pick up to-go meals and take them elsewhere to eat. Signs cordoned off many common areas on campus. Cleaning crews hourly wiped down common surfaces.

But other sights bothered Best: Students waiting in line to enter the main dining hall bunched much closer than 6 feet apart. He took cell phone video of six students clustered together singing: Five sat in chairs and one stood playing a guitar, all well within 6 feet of each other. Other students watched movies together and greeted each other with hugs.

Though the university had transitioned to mostly online-only classes after the governor’s public gathering order, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. had previously made it clear he didn’t want to. Opening the campus to any student who wanted to be there helped international students but sparked criticism from Lynchburg officials, Liberty students and faculty, and national media. Best attributes some students’ lax behavior to Falwell and Liberty’s public rhetoric about COVID-19: “The administration isn't doing enough to discourage the stupidity that happens when college students think they’re invincible.”

DID FALWELL AND HIS ASSOCIATES act too slowly and take COVID-19 lightly? The world has changed a lot in less than a month. On March 12, the United States had 1,312 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The entire world had 125,000 cases. Americans were just beginning to see officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci on their TVs each day, delivering news like public health prophets: The worst was still to come. On March 12 a wave of sports leagues and businesses suspended operations, forcing colleges to examine their own plans.

One day later, Falwell appeared on the TV show Fox & Friends and set the tone for Liberty’s response in the days ahead. He said Liberty had no plans to transition to online-only classes. Then, after calling the coronavirus the flu, he wondered aloud whether President Donald Trump’s political opponents ginned up the crisis after impeachment and the Mueller Report failed to remove him from office. He then asked whether the North Koreans had manufactured a biological weapon. “It’s just strange to me how so many are overreacting,” he said.

Steve Helber/AP

Jerry Falwell Jr. (Steve Helber/AP)

In a series of tweets two days later, Falwell defended his stance, saying he didn’t want to send students home to parents or grandparents more susceptible to COVID-19. One man on Twitter questioned the move and said he is the father of three Liberty students. Falwell tweeted back at him and called him a dummy.

But then Northam announced a new order limiting public gatherings to fewer than 100 people. With that—and after more than 9,000 people had signed an online petition calling for Liberty to cancel in-person classes—Liberty announced it would transition nearly all academic programs online, except for aviation classes and labs. A cascade of operational decisions slowly brought Liberty in line with what other colleges and universities were doing. But some differed from common practices of other institutions.

Most other colleges and universities immediately limited who could come to campus after transitioning to online-only education. Covenant College in Georgia, Dordt University in Iowa, Cedarville University in Ohio, and many other schools closed dorms. Students who had nowhere else to go safely had to get special permission to be on those campuses.

Not so at Liberty. Falwell allowed any student who wanted to come back to campus to do so—at a time when public health officials encouraged “flattening the curve” with social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders. Liberty sent an email to students on March 17 “encouraging you to consider staying home” but three days later sent students another email, walking back some of its language: “It was not an endorsement or recommendation of that particular course of action. Liberty University’s position is that all residential students are welcome to either stay in place or return to campus” with safety measures in place.

In a message for students he recorded before Liberty moved classes online, Falwell again questioned whether the pandemic was really a political hit on Trump: “It’s always an election year” when pandemics hit, he said. He referred to it as the flu several times, then deflected concern about its seriousness: “We’re all mortal. We’re all dying from the day we’re born.”

On March 18, Falwell told radio host Todd Starnes: “It’s just fortunate this flu doesn’t have a high mortality rate for young people, because they’re the ones that are not worried about it. I’m not worried about it.” Later in the interview, he said: “That’s what I’m afraid of: We’re going to have 18 new agencies in the federal government to deal with disease from here on out. That would be the worst tragedy.”

More controversy arose when English professor Marybeth Davis Baggett wrote a March 22 op-ed for Religion News Service asking Liberty’s board of trustees to stop Falwell and the administration from giving all students the option to return to campus, and forcing faculty to hold in-person office hours on campus. Falwell later mocked Baggett on Twitter and said faculty could have obtained approval to hold office hours remotely. But I examined emails administrators sent to faculty before Baggett wrote her op-ed—they did not give a “remote office hours” option.

Another decision: Whether Liberty would refund students who finished the semester at home. Many colleges made decisions early to refund room and board expenses to students after closing campuses. Liberty held off on deciding until March 27, days after online classes began and about 1,900 students had returned to campus. Liberty decided it will give students who don’t finish the semester on campus a $1,000 credit for next year’s room, board, and tuition. Graduating seniors will get the credit this year. Students who don’t return for the fall 2020 semester aren’t eligible. Liberty’s undergraduate tuition this year was $23,800. Room and board ranges anywhere from $4,600 to $7,500, with two dining plan options adding around $4,000 more.

AMANDA ANDRADE-RHOADES/AFP/Getty Images

Liberty University student Jared Marshall sits at his desk inside his apartment near Lynchburg, Va. (AMANDA ANDRADE-RHOADES/AFP/Getty Images)

BY THE END OF MARCH THE UNITED STATES​ was a far different place than when Falwell first declared Liberty would keep its campus open and classes would meet in-person. Confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States had shot up to more than 180,000, with about 850,000 cases worldwide. New York City became the new worldwide epicenter with more than half the U.S. cases at the time. 

While the white U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort docked in New York, Liberty University sophomore Chelsea Stocki got used to a new normal. She could have gone back to East Brunswick, N.J.—miles from New York City. “I’m not going to go into the problem,” she told me. “I’m safer here.”

Instead of being in quarantine with her parents, Stocki stays with her five Liberty roommates, makes meals in her dorm room, and attends class via video conference. She and three roommates are on the track team, and they try to go for a run each day on one of the school’s tracks, maintaining 6 feet between other runners: “It’s probably one of the best parts of my day.”

Sophomore Mitch Fischer also decided to return to campus after spring break. His hometown of Albany, N.Y., was on lockdown and had 216 confirmed COVID-19 cases at the end of March. Since his mother has Crohn’s disease—which compromises her immune system—Fischer thought it better to come back to Liberty when Falwell opened the possibility: “I didn’t want the added risk of going home to her.”

Anna Cashmore also elected to come back to Liberty after spending spring break in Florida. Her family lives in Buffalo, N.Y., which had 463 confirmed COVID-19 cases by March’s end. Her father has health problems, including a compromised immune system: “I don’t want to go home and risk getting my dad sick.”

All three students were grateful for Liberty opening campus to them. All three venture out of their dorm rooms and into Liberty’s main dining hall, Reber-Thomas, also known as the ROT—the one where Liberty police enforce the 10-at-a-time rule and students grab to-go boxes to take elsewhere. Cashmore said a few days ago she waited in line inside the ROT to get food. One of her friends walked up and got within 6 feet, and a dining hall worker yelled for him to back away.

Fischer, the sophomore from Albany, ate a meal in his car one day to make sure he didn’t get near anyone else, he said. In his first week back, he estimated his dorm was 85 percent empty and even more desolate the second week after classes resumed.

But even though campus staff are keeping students separated and facilities clean, not all students themselves are taking social distancing seriously. Stocki said inside the ROT is fine. But standing outside the building waiting to get in is different: “I hate standing in the lines outside because no one stands 6 feet apart. I have a 6-foot bubble, and no one is respecting that.”

In her first week back to campus, senior Ellie Richards turned down invitations to get-togethers and parties. She blames the administration for being too lax in early March, saying the first word students heard from administrators about the coronavirus was Falwell’s appearance on Fox & Friends: “The attitude of students will reflect what the administration’s putting out.”

BY THE END OF MARCH, COVID-19 NUMBERS began creeping up in Lynchburg too. At that point, the city had five confirmed cases. The Central Virginia Health District—of which Lynchburg and surrounding counties are a part—had 11 cases. One was a Liberty student—an online student living in Lynchburg. Three Liberty students had tested for COVID-19: one tested negative, one positive, and one test was still pending as of publication of this story. Liberty had asked several students to quarantine because they either came back from a spring break trip to New York City or had been around those students.

On March 29, the New York Times reported up to 12 Liberty students were exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms after returning to campus after spring break. Falwell denied Elizabeth Williamson’s Times report. The story attributed that number to a local doctor, Thomas Eppes, president of a practice whose physicians operate Liberty’s student health center and who informally advised Falwell before Liberty’s spring break. Eppes told me he did not tell the Times reporter 12 students were showing symptoms: “That was a rather remarkable overstatement on her part.”

Other media outlets published news stories or opinion pieces critical of Liberty and Falwell. But the school and its president took criticism from one source they’re not accustomed to: the city of Lynchburg. 

On March 24, Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy criticized Falwell and Liberty for allowing any students on campus: “We have heard too many mixed messages around the country about COVID-19, and this is yet another example.”

Lynchburg City Manager Bonnie Svrcek told me once she and the mayor heard about Liberty’s plans to allow students to return to campus at will, they called and texted Falwell. A conversation with Falwell left them with the impression there would only be a few hundred international students on campus. “Then, low and behold, his website says, ‘Kids, you can come back if you want to,’” Svrcek told me. Falwell has since said he never told the city officials he’d go so far as to close dorms to those who wanted to come back.

Will opening the campus to anyone who wanted to come back mean more COVID-19 infections? I asked Eppes whether the possibility of those spreading COVID-19 being asymptomatic should make colleges more restrictive, not less: “True social distancing would have said you close down everything. … [Falwell] did what he perceived to be the right thing for the students of the school.”

On March 29, administrators estimated only 1,045 students remained on campus. After the criticisms, Liberty began further restrictions on campus. On March 25, Liberty closed recreation facilities to students. On March 29, Liberty announced any new students returning to campus would have to self-quarantine for 14 days on a property 2 miles from campus. A day later, Gov. Northam issued a stay-at-home order that also halted all colleges’ in-person classes still going on, which ended classes for Liberty’s aviation school. Falwell wrote an op-ed for Newsweek defending the college’s decisions. Calum Best, the senior who took video of students grouping close together, said more seem to be taking social distancing seriously.

The operational moves bring Liberty more in line with what other colleges and universities have done. But Svrcek said waiting so long to make such moves may endanger the community: “The risk was compounded by the action that the president of the university took. And that scares me for my community.”

Michael Reneau

Michael Reneau

Michael Reneau is editor of WORLD Magazine. He is a World Journalism Institute and Bryan College graduate. He was editor of The Greeneville Sun newspaper before joining WORLD. Michael resides with his wife and four children in Greeneville, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelReneau.

Comments

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  •  CaptTee's picture
    CaptTee
    Posted: Sat, 04/04/2020 03:34 pm

    Seems reasonable.

    Many students are better off at Liberty than at home.

    Only dictators call for "one size fits all" solutions. Everyone's situation is not the same.

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Mon, 04/06/2020 04:55 am

    From what I can tell, and  know, Mr Falwell is his own worst enemy. His brash, swashbuckling style is often counterproductive. But that is who he is. However it is hard not to wonder what he is thinking. He should be aware that LU being a Christian University and the largest of its kind will be in the crosshairs of any who oppose what they are doing and stand for. Others who supposedly are on LU's side are not immune to promulgating unjust criticism as well. That being said much of what I read here shows common sense as this COVID19 virus situation evolved. There were many questions and concerns of the appropriate response, and still are.

    Speaking of crosshairs. I would be concerned that Marybeth Davis Baggett will be in President Falwell's crosshairs. If she is still on the faculty in the Fall is a question and concern worth following up on by World or even casual observers. There is a history of faculty not having contracts renewed after openly questioning Falwell. We will see...

    I would hasten to add that I applaud LU making its dorm rooms available to students. They have to live somewhere. If they were off campus what would they be doing? It is reasonable to assume that they might be safer in a campus setting and decisions should be made on an as needed basis. However, overseeing this is definitely an administrative nightmare.

     

  • BC
    Posted: Tue, 04/07/2020 10:39 am

    Thank You for the informative article, I've never been happier that tuition for our six kids has and is going to Virginia State schools.

  • Rich277
    Posted: Fri, 04/10/2020 01:01 pm

    What scares me the most about this pandemic is how easily we have been turned into a nation of scolds and informers, ready to expose all who do not comply with the wishes of the State and the NY Times.  "Body Snatchers," for a new generation.

     

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  • R and S
    Posted: Thu, 05/07/2020 09:10 pm

    We have two kids on campus at Liberty.  They never left campus for Spring Break.  There have been no cases of Covid-19 on campus at Liberty.  I am very glad Jerry Falwell let any student who wished stay on.  They love it at Liberty, and they thrive there.  I appreciate that the name of the school is Liberty, and that this is what they are offering their students.