What's the Real Story About Liberty University 'Reopening' Amid Coronavirus?

According to The New York Times‘s Paul Krugman, Liberty University is Exhibit A of life-threatening “science denial.” As students returned from Spring Break, Jerry Falwell Jr. announced the school would remain open, welcome students and faculty back to campus, and hold some classes in person. Yet news outlets reported that Liberty University would “reopen,” making the school notorious across the country for risking infection.

“What lies behind Republican science denial?” Krugman asked. “The answer seems to be a combination of fealty to special interests and fealty to evangelical Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr., who dismissed the coronavirus as a plot against Trump, then reopened his university despite health officials’ warnings, and seems to have created his own personal viral hot spot.”

Yet Liberty did not “reopen.” It merely “remained open,” as the statement the school sent to government authorities made clear. Falwell transitioned the vast majority of classes online. He did welcome students and faculty back after Spring Break, however, and some students have reportedly showed symptoms of COVID-19.

The New York Times quoted Liberty University lead physician Thomas W. Eppes Jr. saying that nearly a dozen students showed COVID-19 symptoms. Three students were tested: one tested positive, another tested negative, and results are pending for the third. According to Liberty, Eppes disputes ever having said nearly 12 students showed symptoms.

After Liberty University partially welcomed students back last week, the Central Virginia Health District dispatched health specialists to survey the campus amid community concerns. According to a statement from the district, two specialists performed a check on open areas and food establishments on campus, and they found no violations of Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.)’s Executive Order 53.

Employees served food, even keeping the usual self-serve products behind countertops. Staff sanitized equipment like soda machines and utensil dispensers every fifteen minutes.

Falwell published an article in Newsweek explaining his university’s position.

“As a Christian university, we also consider it our duty to continue to act with compassion in the midst of this crisis—and we’re proving that we can be in total compliance with the law under this current emergency while also fulfilling our Christian mission. We’re living up to our duty—not shirking it—by allowing a small percentage of our residential students to stay safe on our campus,” he wrote.

He listed Liberty University’s efforts to limit the spread of the coronavirus:

  • Our entire course selection moved to our online platform.
  • Students were given the option to learn from home.
  • No classes are conducted in person, except for a few labs limited to 10 or fewer students.
  • Faculty have the option of working from home and conducting their office hours remotely.
  • All food services are takeout only. All other non-essential facilities, such as fitness and social centers, are closed.
  • Every touchpoint is wiped down and disinfected by our dutiful staff throughout the day.
  • Our computer centers only have every third computer operational for social distancing.
  • Our police force has a campus-wide presence ensuring that people follow our strict rules.
  • We have designated a former hotel, currently vacant, as a quarantine site if it is needed.

When students were allowed to return to campus, about 1,100 of the 15,500 students returned, Falwell said. This number included “hundreds of international students who truly have nowhere else to go. They are now living a nomadic life, keeping a strict distance from others in their dorms and in public spaces, and they’re continuing their coursework through Liberty University Online Programs.”

In his Newsweek article, Falwell noted that Virginia Tech is allowing roughly 950 foreign students to remain on campus, and the University of Virginia is allowing about 300 remain. A Virginia Tech student has also tested positive for the coronavirus.

Liberty students and faculty have long complained about Falwell’s control over the campus, claiming he censors their voices and abuses his position. He arguably embarrassed himself in his gushing praise of Donald Trump during the 2016 primary, and his Trumpian swagger may detract from his evangelical leadership.

Falwell had downplayed the threats of the virus before announcing that Liberty would remain open, and his announcement drew attention precisely because it seemed defiant of national trends. Falwell insisted that “ninety-nine percent of [students] are not at the age to be at risk and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.” While the elderly are at greatest risk of death from COVID-19, young people have gotten the disease and died from it, and Falwell should not have made these remarks.

Despite Falwell’s unfortunate remarks, Liberty is not a “viral hot spot.”

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.