LYNCHBURG, Va. (CN) — As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Virginia rose to nearly 300, one of the state’s largest private colleges made the controversial decision to reopen its doors to students.
Liberty University, a Christian college based in Lynchburg with evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell Jr. at the helm, welcomed back students after spring break in an announcement on the school’s website Monday.
“Our thinking was, ‘Let’s get them back as soon as we can — the ones who want to come back,’” Falwell said in a statement.
About 1,100 students returned to campus this week, a representative for the school confirmed.
The move comes after Virginia’s K-12 public schools and college systems were shuttered through the rest of the academic year as the coronavirus known as Covid-19 spreads across the U.S. at an alarming rate. As of Tuesday afternoon, there are more than 50,000 cases nationwide and over 600 Americans have died.
Liberty University said it has worked to refit an old hotel on campus to house possible positive cases, but will keep school facilities such as gyms and dining halls open with a 10-person limit. Campus events have been canceled for the next two weeks.
Falwell said he contacted the city of Lynchburg’s leadership to inform them of the returning students and claimed “they thanked us for making that decision.” However, in an interview with the Associated Press, Lynchburg City Manager Bonnie Svrcek denied that sentiment.
“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,” Svrcek said.
While the city of Lynchburg has yet to report a confirmed case of Covid-19, at least two cases have been reported in neighboring Bedford and Amherst counties. Testing for the virus in Virginia, much like the rest of the country, has been slowed by lack of access to testing kits.
Three other colleges based in the city have since moved their classes online over coronavirus concerns.
Falwell – a longtime supporter of President Donald Trump and the son of the late Jerry Falwell Sr., who was also a politically outspoken pastor – has taken to conservative media outlets to decry the nation’s response to the virus outbreak.
“You know, it’s just strange to me how so many are overreacting,” he said in a Fox News interview earlier this month.
Falwell went on to compare the virus to the common flu and claimed North Korea might have played a role in bringing it to the U.S. He put his doubt into action following the TV appearance by resisting closing campus until last week, but then moved classes online and sent staff home after Governor Ralph Northam banned gatherings of 100 people or more.
The governor has since reduced that number to 10. Violating that limit is a class 1 misdemeanor.
In an email, Northam spokesperson Alena Yarmosky said the governor’s office was aware of Liberty’s decision and they had been in touch with the school.
“All Virginia colleges and universities have a responsibility to comply with public health directions and protect the safety of their students, faculty, and larger communities,” Yarmosky said in an email. “Liberty University is no exception.”
Employees at the private college have expressed concern about Falwell’s order, which includes a mandatory return to classes. English professor Marybeth Davis Baggett published an op-ed in the Washington Post on Monday decrying the effort.
“I beg the deans, senior leadership, and board members to think more long-term,” she wrote. “These leaders may think they are helping the institution, but in fact, they are sowing the seeds for its devastation.”