At least one student who returned to Liberty University last week has tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the conservative, Christian school’s lead physician.
“Liberty will be notifying the community as deemed appropriate and required by law,” Liberty University’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr, told the New York Times.
Last week, Falwell invited the school’s 5,000 students to return to campus after officials confirmed the Lynchburg, Virginia-based institution would defy nationwide calls for mandatory school closures and reopen.
Now, any student returning to campus would be required to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Lead physician Thomas W Eppes Jr confirmed in the report that nearly a dozen Liberty students showed symptoms of Covid-19 since returning to campus.
According to Eppes, of three tested, one was positive, one negative and the results are pending for the third. Eight other students were told to self-isolate.
“We’ve lost the ability to corral this thing,” Eppes told Falwell before the school’s reopening.
Of the 1,900 students who initially returned, Falwell confirmed more than 800 had since left again. He added the university had “no idea” how many returned to off-campus housing.
According to Eppes, the student who tested positive lived off campus.
In recent weeks, the president had balked at a growing US shutdown in the face of the virus, claiming the country would reopen soon and encouraging healthy Americans to get back to work. On Sunday, however, after last week forecasting that life could get back to normal by Easter, 12 April, Trump rowed back and announced that federal guidelines on physical distancing would stay in place through 30 April.
Evangelicals are a core part of Trump’s base.
Health experts rebuked calls to defy stay-at-home orders. But at Liberty, residence halls reopened.
“I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together,” Falwell said at the time.
Despite Falwell invoking a disproven theory that they are not at risk, young people remain vulnerable to the virus in the US. Data shows 20% of hospitalized patients and 12% of intensive care patients are millennials or Gen Z, essentially between the ages of 20 and 44.
The decision angered area residents.
Critics, including Liberty University faculty, lashed out. Marybeth Davis Baggett, an English professor, said the reopening put “the Lynchburg community”, their “health and lives at risk”.
Falwell has remained largely defiant, responding to Baggett on Twitter by mocking the professor, referring to her as “the ‘Baggett’ lady”.
Even now, the school president had been inconsistent in communicating Liberty’s operational plans. He ordered students home before requiring them and faculty to return to campus, then reversing course again.
The university announced on Friday that students would receive a $1,000 credit next year. But this was after Falwell changed course on issuing refunds for the semester.
Last week, Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, closed all state schools for the rest of the academic year, and directed all non-essential businesses closed.
It is unclear how that order affects Liberty University’s commitment to remain partially open.