Liberty University officials angrily denied a new press report claiming nearly a dozen students were showing symptoms of COVID-19 after President Jerry Falwell Jr. allowed students to return to residence halls following spring break.
The decision to partially reopen the Lynchburg, Virginia, school and allow students into the dorms has provoked a storm of controversy with local officials, but school officials Monday were standing their ground.
Mr. Falwell called the New York Times “complete liars” on Twitter, tweeting that readers can “never believe anything” written about the private Christian university.
“@LibertyU is being supportive and embracing its responsibility to care for students instead of running away and pushing the COVID problem off on others,” Mr. Falwell tweeted Sunday after the Times article was published. “LU is blessed that we have no cases on campus but is committed to providing proper care regardless of what happens!”
Mr. Falwell made the decision to move residential classes online while students were on spring break, following a week of criticism and questions. But residential students living in on campus dorms were given the option to return to campus if they desired.
Virtually all of Virginia’s major universities have shut down almost entirely because of the virus. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam last week tweeted, “I would suggest that President Falwell look to the actions of the leaders of Virginia’s flagship universities.”
Mr. Northam on Monday issued a blanket ban on in-person classes at all of Virginia’s schools of higher education.
The New York Times report cited Dr. Thomas W. Eppes Jr., a physician in charge of Liberty’s health center, as saying a dozen Liberty students were sick with symptoms of the coronavirus and that school officials “have lost the ability to corral this thing.”
But Liberty University, in its own statement Sunday, said the article was “sensationalized” and deserved the label “fake news.” The statement said the numbers Dr. Eppes had given the paper were for students who had been tested or were in self-isolation.
One student did test positive for the coronavirus, Mr. Falwell said, but it was a student living off-campus who never left Lynchburg.
The university also acknowledged that four residential students returning from the New York City metropolitan area after spring break were asked to self-quarantine in the annex, an old hotel located off campus. Two of the students agreed to self-quarantine and the other two decided to return home, according to the university statement.
Three other students, who were in close contact with the four from Manhattan, were also asked to quarantine.
“This was precautionary and not based on any symptoms consistent with COVID-19 among the seven,” the university statement said. “The health professionals did not recommend these asymptomatic students be tested and they were not.”
Mr. Falwell, who has accused the media of overplaying the virus crisis in part to harm President Trump politically, told CNN last week that of the more than 7,000 students living residentially on Liberty’s campus, 1,900 students returned initially, about 1,000 of which were international students with nowhere else to go.
About 800 students left campus last week, dropping the number of students currently on campus to about 1,000. On Friday, the university offered a $1,000 credit toward the fall semester for students who opted not to return to their campus housing.
Despite a media firestorm surrounding Liberty’s decision, other universities have adopted a very similar protocol.
At Texas A&M University, residence halls remain open to students who elected to return to campus, according to a statement from university President Michael Young. For students staying in their dorm housing, grab-and-go food services as well as campus transportation remain open with social distancing enforced.
“We have a number of students for whom campus is their primary residence, and others who have chosen to remain on campus because that is the best alternative for their families and their education,” Mr. Young said in the statement.
A number of other universities, including Rutgers University and Pepperdine University, are allowing international students to stay on campus along with others who are unable to return home due to difficult travel circumstances.