As schools and universities across the country moved classes online to combat a pandemic, Liberty University’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., tried to stand defiantly against the tide.
Falwell, a close ally of President Donald Trump, downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak, speculated whether it was a political stunt from Trump’s opponents and wondered aloud if the virus was part of a secret plot concocted by North Korea and China ― all in the span of one “Fox & Friends” appearance on Friday.
And despite Liberty University’s robust online education program, Falwell staunchly defended the school’s attempt to have 15,000 residential students return to its Lynchburg, Virginia, campus after spring break ― calling one parent who questioned the university’s approach a “dummy” on Twitter.
But by Monday afternoon, after backlash from some students and Lynchburg residents, the evangelical university reversed course, agreeing to move most classes online.
In a statement, Falwell pinned the reversal on a decision by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) a day earlier to ban gatherings of more than 100 people in the state.
“We originally believed it was safest to return our students following their spring break instead of having them return following greater exposure opportunities from leaving them in different parts of the country for longer periods,” Falwell said. “But, the Governor’s recent decision to limit certain gatherings has left us no practical choice because we have so many classes of more than 100 students.”
“Liberty is taking into account the sometimes conflicting orders and guidance of government officials and public health experts regarding higher education and our unique population. As this dynamic situation changes again, the university will continue to reassess,” he added.
The university’s change in course was announced as the Trump administration released new guidelines for containing the spread of the virus, including having young and healthy people avoid groups of more than 10 people and “engage in schooling from home, when possible.”
Virginia now has more than 50 cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel strain of coronavirus that first emerged in China last year. None of those cases are in Lynchburg.
In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, several neighboring universities in Lynchburg ― the University of Lynchburg, Central Virginia Community College, Randolph College ― took steps over the weekend to extend spring break and move classes online afterward. The state’s other large universities ― George Mason University, Northern Virginia Community College, Virginia Tech ― have also committed to moving classes online.
On Friday, Northam ordered all K-12 schools in the state to close for a minimum of two weeks.
That morning, Falwell seemed to be viewing media coverage of the virus with a skeptical eye. He announced on Fox News that his school would remain open and suggested that people were “overreacting” to the outbreak, compared with previous flu pandemics.
“It makes you wonder if there’s a political reason for that. Impeachment didn’t work, and the Mueller report didn’t work, and Article 25 didn’t work. And so maybe now this is their next attempt to get Trump,” Falwell said on “Fox & Friends,” without providing any evidence for his claims.
Falwell also speculated that the outbreak was a “Christmas gift” for America from North Korea. He attributed the theory to the “owner of a restaurant” that he spoke to the previous night.
“Could it be that they got together with China and this is that present, I don’t know, but it really is something strange going on,” Falwell said, without presenting any other details.
HuffPost has reached out to Liberty University and Falwell for elaboration on these claims and further details about the school’s updated policy. University spokesperson Scott Lamb declined to answer specific questions, instead referring HuffPost to the school’s press release.
Liberty University was founded by Falwell’s father, a televangelist whose activism helped cement white evangelicals’ ties to the Republican Party in the 1980s. The younger Falwell is a longtime, loyal Trump supporter who has often stepped in to defend the president’s controversial behavior and statements.
Over the weekend, Liberty University took several steps to curb large gatherings at its Lynchburg campus and restrict international travel in light of COVID-19. Convocation, a biweekly gathering of its student body that undergraduate students are required to attend, has been moved online.
Around the same time that Northam was issuing his ban on gatherings of over 100 people, Falwell defended the university’s decision to remain open in a post on Twitter. He said Liberty would move classes to larger rooms, gyms, arenas and outdoors, “so students won’t be sitting elbow to elbow.” Meals would be “staggered to minimize crowding.”
″@LibertyU will become the model for others to follow in the future,” he wrote.
He also derided a man claiming to be the parent of Liberty University students.
The school’s plan to continue to operate campus classes as normal elicited backlash from some students and Lynchburg residents ― especially since Liberty has the capacity to serve large numbers of students online. Under Falwell’s watch, the university has become one of America’s largest providers of online education, attracting as many as 100,000 online-only students.
More than 11,000 people signed a Change.org petition asking Liberty to reverse course and move its on-campus classes online.
Residents of Lynchburg were also upset about the prospect of 15,000 students returning to campus. Penny Millson-Martula, a 71-year-old registered nurse who lives in the city, complained that Falwell doesn’t understand “how an epidemic works.”
“Liberty students are everywhere as students in the hospitals, servers in restaurants and other close-contact jobs,” Millson-Martula wrote in a letter to the editors of Lynchburg’s News & Advance. “I am being put significantly more at risk of death by Falwell’s not following infection control guidelines.”
Liberty’s about-turn means that when spring break ends on March 23, students can choose to take online classes from their homes or from dorms. Students in labs, or in certain programs such as aviation and nursing, will still attend in-person classes. However, the university pledged that the classes won’t involve gatherings of more than 100 people.
Faculty and staff were still expected to report to work as normal. Those with concerns about COVID-19′s effect on older relatives or children were instructed to use their vacation or sick days.
“Please keep the elderly and the others at high risk with this virus in your prayers,” Falwell said in his statement Monday afternoon.