'It is ungodly': students react to Liberty University reopening

Poppy Noor
Photograph: Steve Helber/AP

With cases of Covid-19 rising rapidly across the US, last week was a strange time for Jerry Falwell Jr to decide to reopen Liberty University.

Related: Liberty University student tests positive for Covid-19 after Falwell reopens campus

Originally, in keeping with other universities in Virginia, Falwell, the institution’s president. said that only international students or those with nowhere else to go would remain. But on Sunday he welcomed over a thousand students back to campus housing.

Falwell Jr had previously compared Covid-19 to the flu, posited that there has been an “overreaction” to the pandemic intended to hurt Donald Trump, and insinuated that the virus was a “Christmas present” from North Korea and China.

Falwell Jr told Fox News last Tuesday that students wanted to be there – indeed, some have spoken up in favor of his decision. But others are watching events unfold with a heavy heart.

“I’m a pro-life advocate for all ages,” said Jess Schama, a 24-year-old history major at Liberty University.

Referencing Falwell’s comments in a Twitter thread, in which he said that young people are unlikely to die from contracting Covid-19, Schama said: “I don’t think that people, even at my age, should be subjected to a virus that could potentially kill. It is so hypocritical that people who would advocate pro-life are OK with this.”

Schama has an underlying health condition and said she would have feared for her life every day if she remained on campus. Furthermore, while the mortality rate for those under 50 is much lower than for the elderly, a CDC report last week confirmed that with regard to US hospitalizations, of those admitted to intensive care, 36% were aged 45-64 years and 12% were aged 20-44 years.

Lauren Lynch, 27, said she was upset by Falwell’s assertion that the population in Lynchburg is less vulnerable than elsewhere. As part of her studies, she works as a mental health clinician in Lynchburg. “A lot of [people here] are at risk. [Many] live in poverty – especially in downtown Lynchburg. A lot of people don’t know that, when they come here, all they see is the Liberty campus,” she said.

Furthermore, while states such as New York have thousands of intensive care units, Lynchburg hospitals have 1,174 beds in total – only 55 of which are for intensive care. For that reason, Schama thinks the decision to allow students to return after periods at home during spring break is particularly irresponsible.

“You’re putting those people at risk: those who don’t have healthcare, some who are already sick, while these students [come back] from all over the country – from highly populated areas like New York, New Jersey, everywhere,” she said.

Jerry Falwell Jr. ‘I don’t believe he has conducted himself in a very professional manner … He is bringing a horrible name to Christianity,’ said one student. Photograph: Steve Helber/AP

There is no obligation for students to return to campus, and Falwell has claimed that the school is “completely online” – despite medical, aviation and other practical classes still happening in person. He has described Liberty as being “more like an apartment complex” than a university, with the canteen only open for takeout; but the library is open, as are computer labs. Falwell said that signs remind students not to sit next to each other, and that only every third computer works to prevent students from doing so. Liberty University was contacted for comment, but did not respond in time for publication.

Liberty University’s code of conduct, known as the “Liberty Way”, includes not listening to lewd music, engaging in sexual relationships, disobeying faculty members or putting others at risk.

Lynch believes that Falwell has been hypocritical and does not practice what the college preaches – for example, the Liberty Way advises against name-calling, and yet, when one parent with concerns contacted Falwell on Twitter (“I’m as right wing as they get, bud. But as a parent of three of your students, I think this is crazy,” said the parent), Falwell responded by calling him a dummy.

“I don’t believe he has conducted himself in a very professional manner … He is bringing a horrible name to Christianity,” said Schama.

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Schama said Falwell’s decision compromises students who want to do the right thing without being insubordinate. She says students have been advised when speaking to the media to remember that Liberty students “are champions for Christ, we are all Christ’s children, and we need to promote ourselves in a godly way”. Schama empathizes with those principles, and believes students should respect authority. However, as a Christian, she feels she has a duty to speak out.

“At this point it doesn’t come down to how I think I should be conducting myself on social media. It comes down to what I think is right, and giving a voice to those who can’t speak up because of the potential backlash,” she says. And for her, there is a clear line when it comes to her Christian values: “Absolutely – it is ungodly to allow people to keep spreading an infection that could potentially kill people,” she says.

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that one Liberty University student had tested positive for Covid-19 of three that were referred to local hospital centers for testing, while an additional eight were told to self-isolate.

Schama believes the New York Times is propagating fake news, and said she had instead been going to the faculty website for updates. Still, she keeps on looking – mainly out of fear for her teachers. “I’m terrified for my lecturers. I really don’t feel like anyone’s safety has been taken into consideration,” she says.

What will she do, then, if she finds out later that the numbers are correct?

“A lot of people, including myself will be very upset that the university did not speak up sooner. Timing is everything. It would mean it was just putting more people at risk,” she says.