Thousands of Liberty students expected to return to campus amid coronavirus outbreak – Richmond.com

LYNCHBURG As the coronavirus threatens to spread across the Lynchburg region, Liberty University officials are preparing to welcome back up to 5,000 students from spring break this week.

Defying a national trend of campus closures, President Jerry Falwell Jr. has invited students to return to residence halls and has directed faculty members to continue to report to campus even as most classes move online.

In an interview Sunday night, Falwell said somewhere between several hundred to more than 5,000 students are expected to live in campus dorms, where they will continue coursework online rather than in classrooms.

Meanwhile, hundreds of professors and instructors without a valid health exemption will come to campus to hold office hours.

I think we have a responsibility to our students who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board theyve already paid for and to not interrupt their college life, Falwell said.

Falwells decision leaves Liberty as an outlier among the scores of colleges and universities across the country that have shut down to help limit the spread of the disease known as COVID-19.

The threat of the coronavirus became more immediate for the Lynchburg region this weekend when the Virginia Department of Health announced cases in Amherst and Bedford counties. Statewide, as of Monday evening, more than 250 people have contracted the disease and seven have died.

In response to the widening pandemic, several nearby institutions have instructed faculty to work remotely and have limited dorms to students unable to return home. At the University of Lynchburg, 19 students continue to live in dorms while at Randolph College just five remain on campus.

In contrast with other schools, Libertys dorms, academic buildings, library and fitness center remain open to students.

The university has taken some steps to help slow the spread of the virus. Gatherings in campus buildings, including a handful of classes still holding in-person meetings, are capped at 10 people in accordance with an order by Gov. Ralph Northam.

Similarly, dining halls are only providing take-out service and campus visits have been suspended.

On Monday, Northam directed all non-essential businesses to close by the start of Wednesday. Non-essential services were identified as all places of indoor public amusement as well as fitness centers, and salons that cannot comply with social distancing guidelines. It is unclear how that order will impact Liberty.

Falwell, who has publicly downplayed the threat of the virus in recent weeks, said he is confident the school has taken the proper steps to prepare for a campus outbreak. He said Liberty officials have identified an old hotel owned by the university as a place to quarantine students who fall ill.

I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together, he said. Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk and they dont have conditions that put them at risk.

Some Liberty faculty members have questioned whether Falwells actions have gone far enough.

In a blunt opinion piece published by Religion News Service on Sunday, longtime English Professor Marybeth Davis Baggett called on Libertys board of trustees to overrule Falwells decision to keep campus open.

Many students, faculty, and staff have health conditions that would make COVID-19 difficult to fight, Baggett wrote. 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.

In an interview with The News & Advance, Baggett said she has refused to return to campus during the course of the pandemic.

Lives are at stake, Baggett, who plans to join the Houston Baptist University faculty this fall after 17 years at Liberty, said. I think this decision is a recipe for disaster and I have been trying to push that as much as I have been able to internally.

For some students life on campus has already resumed, albeit under unusual circumstances.

Senior Christian Griffith returned to his east campus dorm Thursday. He said of the about 70 students who normally live in the building, only around 20 have since moved back in.

It's a pretty empty campus, he said. The number of students staying seems to be low.

Other students returned only briefly to meet a Tuesday night deadline to complete the move out process. According to an announcement sent to students Saturday, the university is now considering offering refunds or credits to students who choose to move off campus.

Though Griffith is concerned about the swiftly spreading virus, the Charlottesville native said he is happy to have a place to stay in Lynchburg. Both of his parents work at the University of Virginia Medical Center and living at home, he said, could pose a greater health risk than living in a dorm.

To protect himself, Griffith has stocked up on food and plans to spend most of his day indoors binging television shows, studying for classes and reading the Bible.

I'm not going to leave unless I need to, he said.

Photos: The scene in Washington D.C. as cherry blossoms reach full bloom, streets close

A visitor take a picture as she walks by cherry blossom trees in full bloom at the tidal basin in Washington, Sunday, March 22, 2020. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

A 17-year-old who asked not to be named wears a yellow hazmat suit, gas mask, boots, and gloves as he walks with his family, from Gaithersburg, Md., under cherry blossom trees in full bloom along the tidal basin, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. "I'm not worried for me since I'm young," says the 17-year-old, "I'm wearing this in case I come into contact with anyone who is older so that I won't be a threat to them." He plans to wear his protective outfit for coronavirus each time he leaves the house. Sections of the National Mall and tidal basin areas have been closed to vehicular traffic to encourage people to practice social distancing and not visit Washington's iconic cherry blossoms this year due to coronavirus concerns. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw a large crowd. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

At sunrise people walk by cherry blossom trees in full bloom on the National Mall, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. Sections of the National Mall and tidal basin have been closed to vehicular traffic to encourage people to practice social distancing and not visit Washington's iconic cherry blossoms this year due to coronavirus concerns. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A family from Washington, who asked not to be named, are reflected in a puddle as they take photographs for the daughter's quinceaera, or fifteenth birthday celebration, under cherry blossom trees in full bloom along the tidal basin, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. Sections of the National Mall and tidal basin have been closed to vehicular traffic to encourage people to practice social distancing and not visit Washington's iconic cherry blossoms this year due to coronavirus concerns. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw a large crowd. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A visitor take pictures of cherry blossom trees in full bloom at the tidal basin in Washington, Saturday, March 21, 2020. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Visitors using masks walk by cherry blossom trees in full bloom at the tidal basin in Washington, Saturday, March 21, 2020. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

A visitor walks by cherry blossom trees in full bloom on the National Mall, in Washington, Sunday, March 22, 2020. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds..(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Visitors walk by cherry blossom trees in full bloom at the tidal basin in Washington, Sunday, March 22, 2020. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds..(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

A couple take a picture as they walk by cherry blossom trees in full bloom on the National Mall, in Washington, Sunday, March 22, 2020. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds..(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Visitors walk by cherry blossom trees in full bloom at the tidal basin in Washington, Sunday, March 22, 2020. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds..(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

A musician play as visitors walk by cherry blossom trees in full bloom at the tidal basin in Washington, Sunday, March 22, 2020. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds..(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Officer Green, with the Traffic Control Office, directs traffic around street closures as the city makes an an effort to keep large crowds away while the cherry blossom trees are in full bloom, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. Sections of the National Mall and tidal basin areas have been closed to vehicular traffic to encourage people to practice social distancing and not visit Washington's iconic cherry blossoms this year due to coronavirus concerns. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw a large crowd. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Summer Thomas, 16, left, and Emily Treacy, 18, both of McLean, Va., run past cherry blossom trees in bloom at the tidal basin, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. "We run track together and we are trying to keep our workouts going," says Treacy, "running is the one thing that makes it feel normal." The girls recently dyed their hair pink together via video chat with friends who are staying home due to coronavirus worries. Sections of the National Mall and tidal basin have been closed to vehicular traffic to encourage people to practice social distancing and not visit Washington's iconic cherry blossoms this year due to coronavirus concerns. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A car is towed from a parking space on 14th St NW shortly after sunrise as sections of the National Mall and tidal basin were closed to vehicular traffic in an effort to prevent crowds from visiting the cherry blossom trees in full bloom along the tidal basin, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. Traffic was modified to encourage people to practice social distancing and not visit Washington's iconic cherry blossoms this year due to coronavirus concerns. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw a large crowd. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

People visit the cherry blossom trees in full bloom at the tidal basin, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. Sections of the National Mall and tidal basin have been closed to vehicular traffic to encourage people to practice social distancing and not visit Washington's iconic cherry blossoms this year due to coronavirus concerns. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A woman wearing a mask walks along an almost empty Tidal Basin lined with cherry blossoms that are about to peak, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

A small amount of cherry blossoms have begun to bloom along the Tidal Basin at East Potomac Park, Friday, March 13, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The Lincoln Memorial is visible as Cherry Blossoms begin to bloom near the base of the Washington Monument on the National Mall, Tuesday, March 17, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Visitors walk by cherry blossom trees in full bloom with the Washington Monument in the background on the National Mall in Washington, Sunday, March 22, 2020. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

A 17-year-old who asked not to be named wears a yellow hazmat suit, gas mask, boots, and gloves as he walks past a couple in an embrace, as he and his family from Gaithersburg, Md. walk under cherry blossom trees in full bloom on their way to the tidal basin, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. "I'm not worried for me since I'm young," says the 17-year-old, "I'm wearing this in case I come into contact with anyone who is older so that I won't be a threat to them." He plans to wear his protective outfit for coronavirus each time he leaves the house. Sections of the National Mall and tidal basin areas have been closed to vehicular traffic to encourage people to practice social distancing and not visit Washington's iconic cherry blossoms this year due to coronavirus concerns. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw a large crowd. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Milla Tang, center, and Aaron Chen, right, wait as Junjie Dong, left, takes a photograph as the college students visited cherry trees in full bloom, Sunday, March 22, 2020, along the tidal basin in Washington. "I've heard people saying it's hilarious to wear masks," say Tang, who came early to avoid crowds, "it makes me feel sad, masks aren't a joke, they can keep people safe. We want to be treated like everyone else, not like dangerous Asian people." Sections of the National Mall and tidal basin have been closed to vehicular traffic to encourage people to practice social distancing and not visit Washington's iconic cherry blossoms this year due to coronavirus concerns. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Two people stand in front of the Washington Monument at sunrise as cherry blossom trees are seen in full bloom, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. Sections of the National Mall and tidal basin area have been closed to vehicular traffic to encourage people to practice social distancing and not visit Washington's iconic cherry blossoms this year due to coronavirus concerns. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw a large crowd. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A District of Columbia Police Car blocks the road near the Washington Monument in an effort to discourage crowds from visiting the cherry blossom trees in full bloom, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. Sections of the National Mall and tidal basin areas have been closed to vehicular traffic to encourage people to practice social distancing and not visit Washington's iconic cherry blossoms this year due to coronavirus concerns. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw a large crowd. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Charlotte Petersen, 1, toddles to her father, Billy Petersen, of Falls Church, Va., next to her mother Heather, as the family visits the cherry blossom trees in full bloom along the tidal basin, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. "We wanted to get some fresh air and a change of scenery," says Heather Petersen, "we figured if we came early and it wasn't crowded then we wouldn't be too on top of other people." Sections of the National Mall and tidal basin areas have been closed to vehicular traffic to encourage people to practice social distancing and not visit Washington's iconic cherry blossoms this year due to coronavirus concerns. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw a large crowd. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A family plays under cherry blossom trees in bloom at the tidal basin, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. Sections of the National Mall and tidal basin have been closed to vehicular traffic to encourage people to practice social distancing and not visit Washington's iconic cherry blossoms this year due to coronavirus concerns. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Visitors walk by cherry blossom trees in full bloom at the tidal basin in Washington, Sunday, March 22, 2020. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Visitors take pictures of cherry blossom trees in full bloom at the tidal basin in Washington, Saturday, March 21, 2020. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Visitors walk by cherry blossom trees in full bloom at the tidal basin in Washington, Sunday, March 22, 2020. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

A lone man skateboards under cherry blossom trees in bloom at the tidal basin, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. Sections of the National Mall and tidal basin have been closed to vehicular traffic to encourage people to practice social distancing and not visit Washington's iconic cherry blossoms this year due to coronavirus concerns. The trees are in full bloom this week and would traditionally draw large crowds. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Dave Anderson, left, and Panadda Harrington, both of Reston, Va., walk hand-in-gloved-hand while wearing cloth face masks as they visit the tidal basin to see the cherry blossom trees in full bloom, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington. "We walk everyday," says Harrington, "and cabin fever pushed us out to see the blossoms. We didn't think it would be as crowded as usual and it's not. We would only have been concerned about coronavirus if it had been very crowded." (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

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Thousands of Liberty students expected to return to campus amid coronavirus outbreak - Richmond.com

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