Local officials in Lynchburg, Virginia are condemning Liberty University President Jerry Falwell’s decision to let students back into the dorms after spring break as a “reckless” broken promise.
Falwell’s choice stands in contrast to colleges across the country that have sent students home, switched to virtual learning or closed altogether for the school year.
To hear Falwell tell it, local government had fully signed on to his plan to welcome the students back. Per the school website, Falwell said that Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy and City Manager Bonnie Svrcek “thanked us for making that decision.”
But Tweedy struck a very different tone in a Tuesday statement.
“Liberty University is an important part of this community; however, I believe it was a reckless decision to bring students back on campus at this time,” Tweedy said. “It is unfortunate that President Falwell chose to not keep his word to us and to this community.”
She added that “at no time did I or the City Manager endorse having the students return to Liberty University,” and that they actually advocated for “just the opposite.”
She said that all she thanked him for was letting her know that campus had to remain open to house international students, certain lab classes and the School of Aviation, when she asked him to close campus completely. The school has moved most classes online and limited the gym and cafeteria to 10 people at a time. Elsewhere, signs have been posted to encourage social distancing.
“I was very surprised and disappointed to later learn of President Falwell’s most recent decision to allow students back on campus,” she added.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D) shares the local officials’ disapproval, per press secretary Alena Yarmosky.
“The Governor is concerned by these reports, and members of the administration have already spoken directly with Jerry Falwell Jr,” she told TPM. “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. Liberty University is no exception.”
One member of faculty, Associate Professor of English Marybeth Baggett, has also made her feelings known about Falwell’s decision. She pointed TPM to a Facebook post she wrote over the weekend.
“It is true that young people seem less susceptible to COVID-19 complications, but their presence in Lynchburg and activity on campus, especially interacting with faculty and staff who will go back home each night to their families and community, opens the door to what seems to me and to many a preventable tragedy,” she wrote. “Yet many Liberty faculty and staff hold back from expressing their concern publicly for fear of repercussions.”
Below, she posted anonymous comments from members of the Lynchburg and Liberty communities expressing their fear.
“That thread shows how difficult it will be for people to speak out,” she told TPM. “But it will also show you the heartbreaking positions of people at the school.”
Baggett also wrote an op-ed pointing to Falwell’s nonchalant attitude towards the disease as the catalyst for the decision to leave the school open.
On the Todd Starnes radio show earlier in the week, Falwell sang Trump’s praises while downplaying the seriousness of coronavirus.
“Shame on the media for trying to fan it up,” he said of the pandemic. “They’re willing to destroy the American economy just to hurt Trump.”
On young people congregating in large groups for spring break, Falwell chuckled and said that he too felt “invincible” at that age.
Falwell’s decision comes as Northam is escalating precautionary measures in Virginia. On Monday, as he ordered all public schools in the state to close and shuttered non-essential businesses, he issued a somber warning.
“These numbers unfortunately will continue to rise,” he said. “We are in this for months, not weeks.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, the state had 290 confirmed cases.