Students at Liberty University reacted with relief and satisfaction after the school in Lynchburg, Virginia, announced Monday it was canceling most residential classes for the rest of the academic semester, making LU one of the last schools in the state to suspend normal operations.
After a week of pushback from university President Jerry Falwell Jr., school administration officials announced the decision shortly after President Trump endorsed stricter measures to combat COVID-19 Monday afternoon.
Almost all of Liberty’s residential classes now will be moved online, save for a few “performance-based” classes such as nursing labs and flight instruction for aviation students, according to a university release.
Liberty’s residential students had created a social media storm over the weekend, voicing disapproval over Mr. Falwell’s decision to keep the school open and the students in their dorms as the virus intensified.
“It is sad to see the disregard for the safety of students, faculty, staff and the community of Lynchburg,” David Hixson tweeted Sunday. “It is not time to score political points at the expense of others’ health. Sending students home would allow us to self-quarantine and slow the spread of the virus.”
Liberty’s residential student population of more than 15,000 started spring break Friday after classes ended, and many were concerned Mr. Falwell did not appreciate the potential danger of allowing students to return to campus after break ended.
“You do realize that thousands of students will be coming back to campus from virus hot zones, right?” student Kathy Elizabeth tweeted Sunday. “Someone’s going to come back with it, whether it’s a mild case or not, whether they’re showing symptoms or not. And once someone brings it to campus, it will be vastly too late.”
Mr. Falwell told “Fox and Friends” late last week people were “overreacting” to the threat, and he speculated the reaction could be a “political” ploy to paint Mr. Trump in an unfavorable light ahead of the November election. Mr. Falwell is among the most prominent evangelical voices in the country supporting Mr. Trump
“Impeachment didn’t work, the Mueller report didn’t work, and [impeachment] didn’t work, and so maybe now this is their next attempt to get Trump,” Mr. Falwell said, referring to the official investigation that found no collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
Students erupted after Mr. Falwell took to Twitter on Sunday to explain why Liberty would not cancel classes, tweeting that the university would move students outdoors for classes, stagger meal times in campus dining halls and move the required weekly Convocation gatherings to online only.
“I don’t want to become one of these college presidents who are pushing this problem off on someone else by sending 20-year-olds with near zero mortality risk to sit at home for the rest of the semester, often with grandparents in the house who are truly at risk,” Mr. Falwell tweeted.
In its statement Monday the school also cited the edict from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam banning gatherings of more than 100 people, leaving the school with what Mr. Falwell called “no practical choice” but to shift to online teaching.
After the administration’s initial resistance, more than 11,000 students and residents of Lynchburg signed a Change.org petition pleading for university officials to move classes online after spring break to protect vulnerable students and faculty. The petition was created by a user named “Cole Rav,” who identified himself as a junior at Liberty using an alias.
“This petition was made to call attention to the seriousness of the virus,” the petition said. “This is not a political issue, it is a global health pandemic that can kill populations that have compromised immune systems or other health problems.”
Rav previously was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and while working with an elderly community for the past few years, had spent time around a number of people with compromised immune systems. Mr. Falwell’s initial response to the virus was “disrespectful,” in Rav’s mind.
“To him, it may be politics, but to a lot of people it’s life or death,” Rav said in a phone interview with The Washington Times.
Although Liberty’s administration decided to move most classes online, Rav does not consider the shift a victory, saying the administration’s decision was not based on the concerns of students, but rather what the government decreed.
“I feel like [Mr. Falwell] just had his hands tied behind his back and decided to cancel classes, … but he didn’t listen to the students,” Rav said. “I’m probably going to be a lot more wary when I get back to campus next semester. … I’m not proud to be a Liberty student like I was a few months ago.”