Liberty University in Virginia welcomed students back to campus Monday amid criticism of its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., for the decision during the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 1,100 students returned Monday following spring break, according to Scott Lamb, a spokesman for the university in Lynchburg. Falwell said he met with many of them.
"They were talking about being glad to be back," Falwell said in a statement Monday published by the university news service. "I was joking about how they pretty much had the whole place to themselves, and told all of them to enjoy it."
At least one professor at the university has criticized the move, writing in an op-ed that "Falwell's lack of concern" about the pandemic puts faculty, staff and others in the city of Lynchburg at risk.
In addition, an online petition seeks Falwell's removal over his alleged failure to take COVID-19 seriously.
The private evangelical Christian university in Lynchburg has 100,000 students, the school's website says, of whom about 46,000 are undergraduates, according to U.S. News & World Report. About 57 percent of Liberty's residential students live on campus, the university says.
The students returned on the same day Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced that all K-12 schools in the state will remain closed for the rest of the school year. Northam, who is a doctor, said the closures were necessary to slow the spread of the virus.
As of Tuesday morning, Virginia had 290 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, 45 hospitalizations and six deaths.
Falwell said the decision to have students return to campus was not made lightly.
After Northam imposed a 100-person limit on gatherings, most of the university's programs were moved online.
"I was on a conference call with other college presidents and representatives from private colleges, and we listened to what other schools were doing," he said. "Many were throwing their hands up and saying they would just close and others were going to extend their breaks."
At that time, students were on spring break, which Falwell said gave the school time to work out a plan.
"Our thinking was, 'Let's get them back as soon as we can — the ones who want to come back.'"
Falwell said in his statement that he and his executive leadership team met regularly to determine measures that needed to be taken for students to be able to return to their dorms and use the campus dining services that they paid for.
By keeping residence halls open, Falwell said, the university is also able to accommodate international students who are unable to return home and those who commute. He said the school's dining services provider is adhering to the governor's 10-patron limit in restaurants.
He described the campus environment as "sort of a housing complex, with restaurants doing takeout."
The university has been keeping the Liberty community regularly updated though a COVID-19 website.
But the faculty member, in the op-ed published by the Religion News Service and posted online by The Washington Post, said, "Falwell's lack of concern does nothing to mitigate these students likely becoming vectors of the pathogen roaming around Liberty's campus and the Lynchburg community, interacting with professors and staff and other townspeople."
The piece, by an associate professor of English, was titled "I work for Liberty University. Jerry Falwell Jr. is taking an extreme path that threatens lives."
"As a Liberty faculty member, I have been told that my colleagues and I must conduct our classes from our offices, even though that instruction is now being delivered virtually," the professor, Marybeth Davis Baggett, wrote. "We are also expected to hold office hours and welcome students for face-to-face interaction."
Baggett also said Falwell has made misleading statements about the coronavirus outbreak recently on a conservative radio show.
The online petition calling for Falwell's removal, which has 11,242 supporters toward a 15,000-signature goal, is on Faithful America, a website that describes itself as an online community of Christians working toward social justice.
Falwell said the university has been consulting with medical professionals daily and responded to staff and employees who disapprove of the decision to reopen the campus.
"Unfortunately some faculty went directly to the media instead of to HR,” he said. "If they had, they would've learned that accommodations were available to allow those with medical conditions to be separate from others."