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Liberty University, the fundamentalist Christian school run by homophobe and Donald Trump supporter Jerry Falwell Jr., is getting plenty of criticism for allowing some students back on campus during the COVID-19 crisis -- but Falwell says concerns are exaggerated.
Officials at the school in Lynchburg, Va., decided this week against extending spring break and in favor of letting students return to campus if they wish, although classes are being conducted online. "The decision came down to whether to extend the break and risk students having a longer time to become exposed to the virus and bring it back to Lynchburg, or to put everything in place in time for their return," according to a Liberty University press release.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy have objected to the move. Northam has issued an order closing nonessential businesses, banning gatherings of more than 10 people, and shutting down K-12 schools for the rest of the year, CNN reports.
But today on the news channel's New Day program, Falwell said only a small minority of students have returned to the campus and that it looks like "a ghost town." The university is complying with Northam's order, he added.
"Liberty did not reopen," he told Alisyn Camerota on New Day. "Liberty has between 1,000 and 2,000 students on a campus built for 15,500, and almost a thousand are international students who have nowhere else to go. Others have no place else to be except in their dorms." He said university food services are open only for takeout.
"The campus has become more like an apartment complex than a university," he said. "All the education is being done online. All the restaurants are serving takeout only. We are wiping down every surface that is touched off on every hour, we have extra police. ... It looks like a ghost town."
A university spokesman told CNN Tuesday, though, that Liberty is preparing for as many as 5,000 students to return.
Northam, through his press secretary, expressed worry about the situation. "The governor is concerned by these reports, and members of the administration have already spoken directly with Jerry Falwell Jr.," Alena Yarmosky told CNN. "All Virginia colleges and universities have a responsibility to comply with public health directions and protect the safety of their students, faculty, and larger communities. Liberty University is no exception."
Northam raised further objections during a Wednesday news conference, Virginia TV station WDBJ reports. "We appreciate our colleges and universities making accommodations for students with special cases, but that is very different from inviting students to leave their homes and come back to campus," he said.
The university's press release said Lynchburg city officials had approved Liberty's decision, but the mayor said that was not the case. "Liberty University is an important part of this community; however, I believe it was a reckless decision to bring students back on campus at this time," Mayor Tweedy said in a statement. "It is unfortunate that President Falwell chose to not keep his word to us and to this community."
Central Virginia Health District inspectors have made surprise visits to the university and found no violations of the governor's order, according to WDBJ. But some students still criticized Falwell's move.
"I don't think he's doing what all needs to be done," Alexis Valle, a Liberty freshman who's staying at her Lynchburg-area home, told the station. "I don't think anyone should be allowed back on campus. ... Because the students don't just stay on campus when they're there."
Other central Virginia schools, such at the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, "have largely closed to students" and are encouraging them to stay at home, WDBJ reports.
Liberty, founded by Falwell's father, is a notoriously anti-LGBTQ institution. It has a code of conduct stating, "Sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman are not permissible." It has hosted numerous anti-LGBTQ events, including some that endorse so-called conversion therapy.