Liberty University is keeping its campus open to students returning from spring break — despite coronavirus concerns that have led to college closures across the country.
According to the latest update to its website on Monday night, the Christian university in Lynchburg, Virginia, is keeping its residence halls open to students who choose to return to campus, while faculty and staff members have been instructed to “report to work as normal.”
Although the school has transitioned to mostly online teaching and school-sponsored study abroad and international trips have been canceled, Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. said in a press release last week that the decision was made to continue housing for students who couldn’t immediately go back home.
“Many of our international students are simply unable to return to their home countries and other students don’t have a place to go, so we must keep our campus residence halls and dining services staffed anyway,” Falwell said, “although we will be modifying the way meals are picked up and consumed.”
Some classes — like labs and aviation courses — won’t be offered online and will continue in person, with groups smaller than 100, per the state’s COVID-19 guidelines.
On Sunday, Falwell told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that 5,000 students were expected to return to campus residence halls. According to the school’s website, there are 100,000 students enrolled, including 850 international students.
“I think we have a responsibility to our students — who paid to be here, who want to be here, who love it here — to give them the ability to be with their friends, to continue their studies, enjoy the room and board they’ve already paid for and to not interrupt their college life,” said Falwell.
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According to the Times-Dispatch, the school will use a nearby hotel owned by the university to quarantine any students who develop symptoms. On-campus dining will be takeout only.
“I think we, in a way, are protecting the students by having them on campus together,” Falwell said. “Ninety-nine percent of them are not at the age to be at risk and they don’t have conditions that put them at risk.”
As of March 24, there have been 43,499 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., with 537 deaths, according to a New York Times database.
On Sunday, the Religion News Service published an op-ed titled “Dear Liberty University board: Please stop Jerry Falwell Jr. before it’s too late” by a professor named Marybeth Davis Baggett, who urged the decision to be reversed, and to send everyone home.
“For one charged with leading a Christian institution of higher learning, these are troubling qualities, fundamentally at odds with both Christian faith convictions and an academic mindset,” Baggett wrote. “For a leader dealing with a situation of such magnitude, they are outright terrifying.”
Added Baggett: “These leaders may think they are helping the institution, but in fact, they are sowing the seeds for its devastation.”
A representative from Liberty University declined to comment further and directed PEOPLE to the official website for coronavirus-related updates.
One student told the Times-Dispatch that the campus is “pretty empty” and that the “number of students staying seems to be low.”