RICHMOND, Va. – Officials in Lynchburg, Virginia, said Tuesday they were fielding complaints about the hundreds of students who have returned from spring break to Liberty University, where President Jerry Falwell Jr. welcomed them back amid the new coronavirus pandemic.
“We could not be more disappointed in the action that Jerry took in telling students they could come back and take their online classes on campus," Lynchburg City Manager Bonnie Svrcek told The Associated Press.
As many colleges nationwide began announcing campus closures this month, Liberty, which is among the nation's largest and most prominent evangelical institutions, initially planned to continue on-campus instruction. But last week, after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam restricted gatherings of more than 100, Liberty said it would transition most classes online effective Monday.
Residential students were told they were “welcome” to return to campus, according to an email to students. The move was at odds with many other institutions of higher education that urged students to stay home as the outbreak upended daily life around the globe.
Liberty said in a statement Monday that it was working hard to comply with all state restrictions while providing safe and reliable accommodations for students, including extra sanitizing measures and changes to on-campus dining.
“We think Liberty’s practices will become the model for all colleges to follow in the fall, if Coronavirus is still an issue," Falwell said in a statement.
A statement from the local health department said an unannounced campus inspection found no violations.
Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb said about 1,100 students were back on campus by Tuesday morning. He said a former hotel the university owns is available as a quarantine site if needed and tents have been set up “preventatively” for any student on campus who might feel ill.
Falwell, one of President Donald Trump's earliest and most ardent high-profile supporters, has generally characterized virus concerns as overblown. He has praised Trump's virus response, compared the virus to the flu and has accused the news media of stoking fear.
“You guys paid to be here. You wanted to be on campus. I want to give you what you paid for," he told students earlier this month during a livestreamed convocation, a gathering of the student body usually held in person multiple times a week. “We do have to be sensitive to people with respiratory problems and to older people.”
Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy said in a statement that she thought the decision letting students return was “reckless.”
“I am concerned for the students, faculty and employees at Liberty University, and I am also very concerned for the residents of the Lynchburg community," Tweedy said. She read the statement at a city council meeting where members sat separately at individual tables instead of their usual dais.
Liberty's decision also prompted an unusually critical and public dissent from a faculty member. Faculty members, most of whom do not have tenure, frequently decline interview requests from The Associated Press and other news outlets.
“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,” Marybeth Davis Baggett, an English professor, wrote in an opinion piece published by Religion News Service and The Washington Post.
Baggett wrote that faculty had been told to conduct classes from their offices, even though that instruction was being delivered virtually. And she said professors were “expected to hold office hours and welcome students for face-to-face interaction.”
The university's news release said Liberty’s human resources department has been processing requests from employees with health problems that put them at a higher risk for contracting the virus and ”making accommodations as appropriate."
Falwell tweeted a link to the release Monday and said, in part, “Bet the ‘Baggett' lady is embarrassed now!"
Some Liberty students raised concerns about their classmates' behavior. In interviews, they described “quarantine” parties occurring off campus, as well as large gatherings of students, including meetups to play sports or share meals.
“I would say it’s an exception to see someone do the right thing," said Alexa Whaley, a junior from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She said she went home over spring break and returned because of her job at a local law firm.
The campus was quiet Tuesday afternoon, with only a smattering of students visible, including one wearing a bandana to cover his face.
The virus causes only minor flu-like symptoms in most people. But it is highly contagious and young people who show no symptoms can infect others. It can cause severe illness or death, particularly among the elderly and those with underlying health problems.
Total U.S. infections surpassed 50,000 with more than 650 dead Tuesday, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
Svrcek said city officials have fielded concerned calls.
Dr. Kerry Gateley, a regional health director for the Virginia Department of Health, said his office also received calls from worried citizens and parents of Liberty students.
Gateley, who dispatched the inspectors, said the health department was advising Liberty on best practices with dining and student dorm accommodations.
There are nearly 300 confirmed cases statewide and at least nine deaths, according to the state health department. Gateley said Lynchburg doesn't have any confirmed cases.
___ Associated Press photographer Steve Helber in Lynchburg contributed to this report.