As Daily Kos covered last week, while colleges closed across the nation, one private, Christian college in Virginia went a decidedly different route. Liberty University, which has had both Mike Pence and Donald Trump speak over the years, welcomed students not only back to campus, but back to campus after spring break.
Now, as The New York Times first reported, some students at the evangelical university have gotten “sick with symptoms that suggest COVID-19”—and that’s concerning for both the university and the local community.
How did we get here? At one point, Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr., a major Trump supporter, went the route of many higher education institutions, claiming that only students (including international ones) without another place to go could stay on campus. That evolved into him welcoming about 1,900 students (of which 800 have reportedly already left) back to campus. That number, by the way, reportedly doesn’t include students who returned to the area to live off-campus.
As The Times reports, there are attempts at social distancing happening on campus. As The News & Advance originally reported, classes went mostly online whether you returned to campus or not, with labs limited to ten people or less. Dining halls went to-go only. Still, in a campus setting, students can only reasonably be so far apart. Limiting a small group of residents is one thing, especially for schools who went the route of, say, Amherst College, which allowed students in need to stay on campus only if they did not go elsewhere for spring break and then return.
Now, as Falwell told The New York Times in an interview on Sunday, students returning to campus will need to self-quarantine for two weeks. Dr. Thomas Eppes, the physician who runs the school’s health service, told the outlet that of the Liberty students who are already “sick with symptoms that suggest” COVID-19 as a possibility, three were reportedly told to go to local hospitals for testing. Eight more were instructed to self-isolate, Dr. Eppes added.
Obviously, there’s a lot happening here. While it’s easy to make jokes and knock undergrads who would return to campus in spite of all other advice and precedent from schools around the nation, blaming the students misses the point. Especially given that, as the Richmond-Times Dispatch reports, Falwell told students who did not come back to campus for the semester that the biggest refund they might receive is a whopping $1,000 credit for the next academic year.
In the bigger picture, the campus is not a bubble. Even if one isn’t terribly concerned about the fate of students, faculty, and staff remaining on the campus, these people are still out and about in the general region. And even if the students are very, very conscientious, there’s still a possibility they’ll use already limited resources if they need medical care down the road.
Falwell, who is fairly active on Twitter and recently appeared on Rush Limbaugh’s show, shared this tweet about a week ago.
If Falwell, and other influential leaders like him, didn’t have so much power and sway, this perspective would be a lot less dangerous. As Daily Kos has covered, more than one religious leader has insisted on holding service in spite of the pandemic. What should people of influence be doing? Advising people to follow medical advice—including, but not limited to, washing their hands and staying home as much as possible.
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