At a time when countless universities have sent students home, one university is reopening its doors.
About 1,900 students returned to Liberty University, a private evangelical Christian university, in Lynchburg, Virginia, a spokesman confirmed to CNN on Tuesday.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. and other leaders discussed whether to extend spring break and “risk students having a longer time to become exposed to the virus,” the school said in a statement. It decided it was safer to bring the students back to campus.
“During Spring Break, Falwell and his executive leadership team began meeting every afternoon to determine the measures that needed to be taken for all programs to go online and for students to be able to return to their dorms and use the campus dining services that they paid for,” the statement said.
Falwell’s decision to bring students back to campus flies against the guidance provided by state officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gov. Ralph Northam issued a statewide order Monday to help slow the spread of coronavirus. The order bans gatherings of more than 10 people and goes into effect just before midnight on Tuesday.
The order also closes nonessential businesses and shuts down all K-12 schools for the rest of the academic year.
Northam expressed concern after learning the university was allowing students back on campus.
“The governor is concerned by these reports, and members of the administration have already spoken directly with Jerry Falwell Jr.,” said press secretary Alena Yarmosky. “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.”
Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy said she did not endorse having the students return to campus.
“I was very surprised and disappointed to later learn of President Falwell’s most recent decision to allow students back on campus,” she said in a statement. “We are in the midst of a public health crisis. I am concerned for the students, faculty and employees at Liberty University, and I am also very concerned for the residents of the Lynchburg community.”
The university gave students a choice in whether they wanted to return by filling out an online form with their intent. As of Tuesday afternoon, about 1,900 students have returned to campus out of the student population of 14,000 to 15,000, university spokesman Scott Lamb said.
University officials are prepared for about 5,000 students to return to campus, Lamb added.
“Our thinking was, ‘Let’s get them back as soon as we can – the ones who want to come back,” Falwell said in the statement.
The university said that it was “in compliance of all state restrictions related to COVID-19” following a Virginia Department of Health inspection during its spring break after the state’s 10-person limit on restaurants went into effect. However, it was unclear if that is still accurate following students’ return.
CNN reached out the Department of Health but did not immediately receive a comment.
Now that spring break is over, the university moved all instruction online on Monday, according to a statement.
Students have the option to remain at home or return to campus to take classes online, the university said.