UPDATE: April 13 — In a statement released March 29, Liberty claimed a New York Times report that students were symptomatic with COVID-19 was “materially false.” The university sought to downplay the Times’ source, asserting that the source had denied the paraphrase attributed to him. The statement also confirmed some key aspects of the report — namely that some students were asked to self-quarantine after returning to campus and at least one Liberty student was advised to self-isolate “based on his reported symptoms.”
Liberty University also said it asked four students and two of their roommates to self-isolate after returning from the New York area, but the university claimed none of them were referred for testing or exhibited symptoms of the virus.
Liberty University also contacted HuffPost in response to this article with a copy of the letter it sent to the Times, threatening legal action. Additionally, Falwell Jr. has stated publicly that he is pursuing warrants for trespass against journalists from the Times and ProPublica for their reporting on the university.
“Our freelance photographer was engaged in the most routine form of news gathering: taking pictures as part of a news story,” a Times spokesperson said in a statement to HuffPost. “We are disappointed that Liberty University would decide to make that into a criminal case and go after a freelance journalist because its officials were unhappy with press coverage of the university’s decision to reopen campus in the midst of the pandemic.”
Nearly a dozen students at Liberty University, a private, evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Virginia, are showing symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, after coming back to campus after spring break, according to a New York Times report.
Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. is a staunch ally of President Donald Trump’s and has been one of the most outspoken opponents of social distancing guidance that has advised schools to avoid holding large, in-person gatherings.
Much like Trump, Falwell Jr. has routinely downplayed the impact of coronavirus, and made the baseless claim that North Korea and China developed the disease as a bioweapon to attack the United States.
By last week, about 1,900 students — of about 15,000 — were back on campus, a university spokesperson told Lynchburg’s News and Advance. By Sunday, Falwell Jr. told the Times, more than 800 of those students had left.
“Liberty will be notifying the community as deemed appropriate and required by law,” he said.
The head of Liberty’s student health service, Dr. Thomas W. Eppes Jr., told Falwell Jr. that the university had “lost the ability to corral this thing” before inviting potentially infected students back to campus, according to the Times. Eppes said he didn’t urge Falwell to close the school at that moment.
The day Liberty reopened its campus amid the outbreak, Lynchburg’s mayor, Treney Tweedy, issued a statement condemning Falwell Jr. and the university.
“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,” Tweedy said.
“Liberty University is an important part of this community,” she added. “However, I believe it was a reckless decision to bring students back on campus at this time.”
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