Students at Liberty University in Virginia are confused and frustrated by school President Jerry Falwell Jr.'s decision to keep the residence halls and campus open to those who want to return, calling his response to the coronavirus pandemic "reckless," "ignorant," and political.
State and local leaders have sharply criticized Falwell, one of President Trump's most loyal and prominent supporters, for telling students this week that they were "welcome" to return to the large, private evangelical Christian campus in Lynchburg as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to swell in the US.
The school president said that he made the call with students' wellbeing in mind, arguing that those who live on campus rely on its services. Falwell told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Sunday that the university has a "responsibility" to students who paid for the education, want to be with friends and in their dorms, and "to not interrupt their college life."
“Our thinking was, Let's get them back as soon as we can — the ones who want to come back," he said in a statement announcing the decision. About 1,900 students came back after spring break and a spokesperson said they are prepared to host 5,000.
Falwell also defended the move by describing the school as “sort of a housing complex, with restaurants doing takeout.”
But Falwell has continued to downplay the severity of the outbreak, commenting on Fox News that the media was intentionally hyping up the virus to "hurt Trump." He has also speculated, without evidence, that the virus was part of a North Korean plot against the US.
Five students who spoke with BuzzFeed News said Liberty's response to the coronavirus has been mixed and disjointed, leaving them unsure if they would be finishing the rest of the school year on-campus or online.
At first, Falwell said his school would remain open, eliciting outcry from parents, students, and teachers. Then school officials took a stronger tone and said they were moving all classes online after spring break, leaving students confused about how long they would be gone and what type of educational environment they'd be returning to.
"We weren't sure if school was going to get canceled, go online, or what," Clayton Didinsky told BuzzFeed News. "All other colleges in our area were closing and we weren't getting any info."
The junior spoke to BuzzFeed News driving through Utah on his way back home to San Diego after packing up all his belongings from his dorm. The 22-year-old has a mitochondrial disease, a chronic illness, and didn't feel safe staying on campus. However, given the delayed and mixed announcements about the state of his school, he was left hanging until the last minute.
"It's been mixed messaging and I honestly think it's a way to keep students' money," he said. "I don't think Jerry is worried about students. I think it's about money because what other reason do they have to keep residential students on campus. There's caution tape around most things and there's not much to do."
Didinsky's friend, Connor Menefee, added that no one really knew how to prepare and described how "strange" it was that Falwell "went on Fox News before talking to students and said he was planning on keeping the school open and that North Korea had something to do with it."
"It sucked that he talked to Fox News before his own student body," the sophomore said.
The friends called the decision "reckless," pointing out the danger of having hundreds of students come back to the same place after spring break, even if there are more stringent rules and precautions.
"It puts everyone at greater risk of getting it because there were so many students who had gone to Florida and different places," he said. "I'm high-risk, and it puts more stress on the community."
Officials at Liberty University did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations from students in this story.
Earlier this week, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency and banned public gatherings of 10 people or more. As a result, Liberty then had to shift all classes online — even special programs the school had originally planned to keep in-person, like aeronautics and nursing. Dining halls are now offering takeout only, the gym is now closed, and officials are spreading students out among dorms.
State and local leaders have also slammed Falwell for keeping dorms open, saying that he misled them when he had first explained his desire to allow students with special circumstances to stay so they would have a place to sleep and eat.
On Wednesday, Northam criticized the school for sending "mixed messages" about the severity of the coronavirus by "inviting" students back to campus. Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy also issued a sternly worded statement expressing her frustration over Falwell's actions, saying that he had told her only international and students with special circumstances would be staying.
“I was very surprised and disappointed to later learn of President Falwell’s most recent decision to allow students back on campus,” Tweedy said.
The school hit back at the governor, arguing that it was "un-Christian to turn students away and push any problems off on someone else."
"Our students are part of the Lynchburg community! They work jobs, have apartments, make economic contributions and pay taxes. That they should be banned or discouraged from choosing to utilize the shelter and food sources that they paid for in a time of crisis is unthinkable," the Liberty statement said.
For some students, though, Falwell's response feels politically motivated.
"It's ignorant and immature, but it's like he's trying to prove something," Casiana De Jesus told BuzzFeed News. "We're embarrassed, and he doesn't represent the students as a whole. I think he wants to be seen as a leader and is obsessed that he could be wrong. It's about image. And I don't know how you don't think this is serious because it's a pandemic. That's as serious as it gets. There's no logic."
The said that while criticizing people goes against her faith, she feels that Falwell is being "un-Christian" by not "using his leadership for good or responsibly."
"If we're trying to be biblical, Jesus was for advocating against hypocrisy and for holding people accountable," she said. "We cannot hold grace for someone who puts people at risk."
De Jesus is studying public health and said that despite Falwell's desire to keep school open, her professors had been warning students to pack up before the break.
Concerned faculty members have also been speaking out. On Sunday, English professor Marybeth Davis Baggett wrote an op-ed for Religion News Service asking Liberty's board to overrule Falwell's decision "before it's too late."
"This foolhardy decision tracks Falwell’s conspiratorial thinking about COVID-19 and smacks of defiance," she said. "It is unconscionable that the leadership of the university is fully implementing Falwell’s politically motivated and rash policy that unnecessarily risks an unmanageable outbreak here in Lynchburg."
For some students, keeping the school open means they're returning to work — although the school said it will continue to pay federal work study wages until May 8 if students choose to remain at home.
One incoming first-year student, who requested anonymity and has been working as a custodian in exchange for tuition, said her janitorial team is operating like nothing's really changed.
"We all clock in in one area and there's more than 10 of us clocking in," the student said. "We meet in the break room, and there's sometimes 20 people in there and it's alarming. It almost seems like no one is understanding the gravity of the situation."
The student custodian said she doesn't feel comfortable working on campus, even though it's much emptier than usual. Students are still hanging out in groups or jogging together, she said.
"A lot of staff I work with have elderly family members who live with them and infants, and that's a concern to be on campus with students now and then go back home," she said. "I wish [Liberty] would be understand what they're doing."
In a press release, Liberty officials said they were working "tirelessly" to comply with COVID-19 laws.
But students say nothing has really changed for them on campus: They are hanging out in each other's rooms, hugging, and having "quarantine parties."
During the weeks of confusion about whether they would stay or go, Didinsky and Menefee, who run an Instagram account for Liberty students, said their peers have been creating memes to try and cope with the situation.
"It's how we deal with things, you know," Menefee said. "Everything is so ridiculous sometimes the only thing you can do is make memes and laugh about it and it helps."