Students returned to Liberty University after spring break this week, even as colleges and universities across the country have sent students home to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Earlier this month, Jerry Falwell Jr., the school’s president, said on Fox News that people were overreacting to the coronavirus pandemic and that the campus would open as usual this week. A few days later, after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam banned gatherings of 100 people or more, Falwell reversed course and said most classes would be conducted online.

Northam has since limited public and private gatherings to 10 people. But the school pressed ahead with a decision to allow students to continue to live on campus if they choose, sparking outrage from students and faculty members who worry that the novel coronavirus could spread rapidly with so many people in such close quarters.

Concerned about Liberty University’s move, the governor directed his chief of staff to call Falwell on Tuesday, according to Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky. She confirmed that the two spoke but did not indicate that the issue had been resolved.

“All Virginia colleges and universities have a responsibility to comply with public health directions and protect the safety of their students, faculty and larger communities,” Yarmosky said. “Liberty University is no exception.”

Some colleges with international students or homeless students don’t have the option of telling them to leave campus, the staffer said. But those student populations are relatively small, so social distancing can be maintained.

Falwell said the university is taking precautions in consultation with health experts, including switching to online instruction for most classes, cleaning surfaces hourly and serving meals as takeout only. Signs on chairs remind people not to sit too close together, he said, and students are using only every third computer in the computer center. The fitness center was limited to 10 people at a time, he said, but the school planned to close it Tuesday night.

Falwell said 1,000 to 2,000 students were on campus this week, including those renting apartments in town. “I’m guessing,” he said. “We really don’t know.”

He said he had heard from students that many were planning to return home to finish their studies because the campus was so quiet.

Calum Best, a senior from Alexandria, Virginia, returned to his dorm despite concerns about the virus. He has a job on campus, he said in an interview, and there are opportunities to help people in need. He also was concerned he might put his parents at greater risk if he were living at home. He said he was being careful about social distancing and would stay as long as he feels he can do so safely. His two roommates have not returned, he said.

Best, who is a student leader but said he was not speaking for the student government association, said he was concerned because he had seen students hanging out together, throwing “quarantine parties” and game nights off-campus, gathering around study tables, and holding small spontaneous worship sessions in public spaces on campus.

They’re not being deliberately careless, Best said. “They’re just relying on the information they have. And they’re not getting good information from leadership.” The information from Liberty has emphasized the steps the school is taking, he said, and played down the risk from the virus.

Most students are not on campus, said Derek Rockey, a senior from Pennsylvania who is the student body president. Many are taking precautions and staying at home, he said. “It feels pretty empty.”

Esther Lusenge, a senior from Kansas who is vice president of the student government association, said that as student leaders, she and Rockey are encouraging others to go home. “Like the rest of the nation, we’re hurting.” She said that they’re doing their best to pivot and remain optimistic, and that school administrators were being supportive and helping ensure that students who are on campus are being safe.

Ellie Richards, a senior from Pennsylvania who expects to graduate in December, said she returned to her apartment near campus but has been staying inside and leaving only for essentials such as groceries. She’s worried about a housemate with an autoimmune disease, and about her father’s vulnerability to serious illness if he were infected. “I don’t think it’s something we can be flippant about, even if the virus doesn’t put me personally at risk,” she said.

Professors have been very caring, she said, advising students to make good decisions, and she hoped they wouldn’t have to be on campus for office hours. “It makes my heart hurt for them,” she said.

“Many students, faculty and staff have health conditions that would make COVID-19 difficult to fight,” Marybeth Davis Baggett, a professor of English at Liberty, wrote in an opinion piece for Religion News Service. “And of course, Liberty is not a bubble where the virus would be contained. Instead, its population comes into regular contact with those in the Lynchburg community, putting their health and lives at risk as well. It is unconscionable that the leadership of the university is fully implementing Falwell’s politically motivated and rash policy that unnecessarily risks an unmanageable outbreak here in Lynchburg.”

The school took other steps to keep people on campus healthy, according to school officials: The campus is closed to visitors, with “no trespassing” signs posted at entrances. Only students and prospective students, their families, employees and people “doing business with the university” are allowed on campus. A building has been designated as a quarantine site for people with symptoms.

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