Liberty University Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus Fears, Too

Updated March 30, 2020: This story has been modified to mirror the primary recognized constructive coronavirus check of a Liberty University pupil.

LYNCHBURG, Va. — As Liberty University’s spring break was drawing to a detailed this month, Jerry Falwell Jr., its president, spoke with the doctor who runs Liberty’s pupil well being service in regards to the rampaging coronavirus.

“We’ve lost the ability to corral this thing,” Dr. Thomas W. Eppes Jr. mentioned he advised Mr. Falwell. But he didn’t urge him to shut the varsity. “I just am not going to be so presumptuous as to say, ‘This is what you should do and this is what you shouldn’t do,’” Dr. Eppes mentioned in an interview.

So Mr. Falwell — a staunch ally of President Trump and an influential voice within the evangelical world — reopened the college final week, igniting a firestorm. As of Friday, Dr. Eppes mentioned, almost a dozen Liberty college students had been sick with signs that instructed Covid-19, the illness attributable to the virus. Three had been referred to native hospital facilities for testing. An extra eight had been advised to self-isolate.

As of eight p.m. on March 29, of these three college students examined, one was constructive, one was damaging and one pupil’s outcomes are nonetheless pending, in response to Dr. Eppes, who added that the scholar who examined constructive for Covid-19 lives off campus.

“Liberty will be notifying the community as deemed appropriate and required by law,” Mr. Falwell mentioned in an interview on Sunday when confronted with the numbers. He added that any pupil now returning to campus could be required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

“I can’t be sure what’s going on with individuals who are not being tested but who are advised to self-isolate,” mentioned Kerry Gateley, the well being director of the Central Virginia Health District, which covers Lynchburg. “I would assume that if clinicians were concerned enough about the possibility of Covid-19 disease to urge self-isolation that appropriate screening and testing would be arranged.”

After preliminary publication of this text, the college mentioned it had requested 4 college students who returned from the New York space and two of their roommates to self-quarantine, however none of them had been referred for testing and none had signs. One pupil who returned from a county with a excessive variety of instances was working a fever and had a cough. He was examined and elected to go house pending the outcomes quite than self-isolate, the college mentioned.

Of the 1,900 college students who initially returned final week to campus, Mr. Falwell mentioned greater than 800 had left. But he mentioned he had “no idea” what number of college students had returned to off-campus housing.

“If I were them, I’d be more nervous,” he added, as a result of they dwell in additional crowded circumstances.

For vital weeks in January and February, the nation’s far proper dismissed the seriousness of the pandemic. Mr. Falwell derided it as an “overreaction” pushed by liberal needs to break Mr. Trump.

Though the present disaster would seem epidemiological in nature, Dr. Eppes mentioned he noticed it as a mirrored image of “the political divide.”

“If Liberty sneezes, there are people who don’t like the fact that Liberty sneezed,” he mentioned in an interview. “Mr. Falwell called me to listen to a view that wasn’t exactly his. Great leaders do that type of thing.”

The metropolis of Lynchburg is livid.

“We had a firestorm of our own citizens who said, ‘What’s going on?’” mentioned Treney Tweedy, the mayor.

Some Liberty officers accuse alarmed outsiders of taking part in politics. Ms. Tweedy has referred to as Mr. Falwell “reckless.” And inside the faculty, there are indicators of panic.

“I’m not allowed to talk to you because I’m an employee here,” one pupil on campus wrote in an electronic mail. But, he pleaded, “we need help to go home.”

Under the Falwell household’s management, Liberty University has grown in 5 many years from a modest Baptist faculty to an evangelical powerhouse with money investments and endowments of almost $2 billion, almost 46,000 undergraduates and a campus that sprawls throughout Lynchburg and neighboring counties in Virginia. Total enrollment, together with on-line college students, exceeds 100,000.

The establishment is a welcome and beneficiant presence on this Blue Ridge Mountain area, the place the share of Lynchburg residents dwelling in poverty is twice the state common. Liberty and its Thomas Road Baptist Church donate items and companies, its medical college students conduct free well being screenings, and its college students take part in metropolis beautification, upkeep and charity tasks.

The college was based by Mr. Falwell’s well-known father as a bastion of social conservatism, one which was unabashedly combative because it skilled what it referred to as “Champions for Christ.” If anything, the younger Mr. Falwell has made it more so since his father’s death.

“To argue that criticism of Liberty is based on political bias is unfounded and unreasonable,” he said. “Liberty just did not take this threat as seriously as others have.”

Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia, Lynchburg city officials and a growing number of Liberty students, parents and employees have urged Mr. Falwell to reverse course, but such pleas have only prompted a stream of often conflicting statements.

“Our messages did change throughout the week as the governor’s orders changed,” Mr. Falwell said. “We had to adapt.”

Mr. Falwell initially said only international students or those with nowhere else to go would remain. Then he welcomed back a much larger group of about 1,900 students to campus housing last week, in addition to faculty members and staff. Others returned to off-campus rentals in Lynchburg.

On campus, the administration says it is adhering to Virginia’s public health mandates, but students are flouting them. While security guards appear to be enforcing state advisories requiring a six-foot distance from others and gatherings of no more than 10 people, students are still assembling in closer proximity to eat, play sports, study and use dormitory restrooms. Decals slapped on furniture that say “Closed for Social Distancing” have wound up on laptops and car bumpers. Study tables are farther apart, but shared computer terminals remain. While some students are trying to adhere to social distancing guidelines, they live in group houses, pile onto city buses and crowd the few businesses that remain open in Lynchburg.

It was not supposed to be that way. As the number of reported cases of the coronavirus in Virginia began rising, Ms. Tweedy said Mr. Falwell personally assured her that the school would not fully reopen. “We have some students who cannot go anywhere or they have nowhere to go,” she recalled his telling her. “The number on that day was 300 or so students, and even if it was a few more, we said, ‘OK, well, thank you.’”

When contacted by The New York Times, Northwell Health denied that Dr. Hyman provided any formal guidance to Liberty, adding that he is not an infectious disease specialist. In a statement, the hospital system said that Dr. Hyman was a personal friend of the Falwell family, who told them in private conversation “that reconvening classes would be a ‘bad idea.’”

Kristin Hussey contributed reporting. Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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