Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. reopened the campus to students and faculty after spring break last week, despite many schools nationwide remaining closed as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus.
Now, at least one student has tested positive for the virus, and others have been isolated with COVID-19 symptoms, The New York Times reported.
The current situation: Dr. Thomas Eppes, who runs the Liberty University student health service, told the Times that 11 Liberty students had reported symptoms consistent with potential COVID-19 infections. Three students have been tested. One test was positive, the other negative, and one more is pending. The other eight are self-isolating.
Four students who returned to Liberty from New York were asked by the university to self-isolate, along with two of their roommates. None of those six people has exhibited COVID-19 symptoms.
About 1,900 students returned to campus after spring break, but 800 of them have now left. More students may have returned to off-campus housing, but Falwell said he doesn't know how many.
Concerns about spread: The university implemented rules to force students to practice social distancing on campus, but the Times reported that many students chose to disobey those rules:
On campus, the administration says it is adhering to Virginia's public health mandates, but students are flouting them. While security guards appear to be enforcing state advisories requiring a six-foot distance from others and gatherings of no more than 10 people, students are still assembling in closer proximity to eat, play sports, study and use dormitory restrooms. Decals slapped on furniture that say "Closed for Social Distancing" have wound up on laptops and car bumpers. Study tables are farther apart, but shared computer terminals remain. While some students are trying to adhere to social distancing guidelines, they live in group houses, pile onto city buses and crowd the few businesses that remain open in Lynchburg.
As a result, there's no certain way to tell how widely the virus may have spread throughout the campus community until students begin exhibiting symptoms and potentially get tested.
Why did they reopen the campus? Falwell is on record criticizing a general "overreaction" to the coronavirus pandemic, and has suggested that the political and religious positions of Liberty are driving criticism of the decision to open the school again.
"We think it's irresponsible for so many universities to just say 'closed, you can't come back,' push the problem off on other communities and sit there in their ivory towers," Falwell said Wednesday on the "ToddCast Podcast," hosted by Todd Starnes. "We're conservative, we're Christian, and therefore we're being attacked."
The mayor of Lynchburg, Virginia, where Liberty University is located, feels differently.
"We had a firestorm of our own citizens who said, 'What's going on?'" Mayor Treney Tweedy told the Times.