Hindsight is a powerful tool that provides vision and clarity, especially about life and death decisions we make.
Looking back over our plan to prevent COVID-19 cases at Liberty University while simultaneously prioritizing the needs of students who lacked the resources and accommodations to weather the storm, we seemed to have struck the perfect balance. Our crisis response plan prevented any cases of COVID-19 on our campus, and it serves as a model for other institutions to follow in the future.
Let’s face it, the world knows a lot more about preventing and mitigating cases of COVID-19 than we did in March. At the time, state leaders were shifting their guidance on a day-by-day, even hour-by-hour, basis. Since no one today has ever dealt with such a massive response to a pandemic, limits on public gatherings, public school closures, business and retail closings, and stay-at-home orders were all in flux as our leaders were determining their guidelines.
Before our students left for spring break on March 13, I assembled a leadership team to establish a whole-of-campus prevention plan. First, we decided that we should not close down but rather find a safe way to allow our students to continue their education. Then, when the governor limited gatherings, we determined that all classes would be conducted online, taught by faculty from their homes to students back in their homes.
While this was a massive adjustment, Liberty was ready for it since we have been a leader in online learning for years, having begun our distance-learning program in 1985. In fact, we set a new school record by enrolling our 100,000th student in one academic year in Liberty University Online just this week.
While this was a great solution for most of our students, we knew a small portion of our residential population — including international students, students with elderly relatives at their permanent residences and students with no other high-speed Internet access — would need to return to their campus home after spring break because they had no place else to go. As a private, Christian university, nothing was going to stop us from providing a safe place for these students to return.
Over the course of several days, we formed a very detailed plan to prevent cases of COVID-19 on our campus. We cancelled all prohibited events, limited dining services to take-out only while maintaining strict limits on people waiting in line, blocked use of most of the desks and work stations in the library and computer labs, closed indoor recreational spaces, allowed employees to work from home, enforced strict social distancing rules with campus police and security, and our excellent custodial staff cleaned every touchpoint on campus repeatedly throughout each day.
We left no stone unturned in creating a very safe environment for about 1,500 students (out of approximately 8,000) who returned to live on campus after spring break. We also asked three students who returned from New York, four others who had contact with them, and those students and employees who had contact with anyone who tested positive for COVID-19 to self-quarantine at home or at an off-campus, university-owned former hotel. Even though none had COVID symptoms, they all willingly complied and never contracted the virus.
On Wednesday, May 6, we marked the end of the spring semester at Liberty University when the remaining students left campus for the summer. We were pleased to announce that there were no COVID-19 cases among our students who lived in the dorms or our employees stationed on campus.
The only COVID-19 cases among the university community were off campus, either online students or employees working from home or offices off campus, and their infections were all traced to contacts in the local community or out-of-state, but not to Liberty. This is thanks to a lot of prayers and an aggressive crisis-response plan that took thousands of man hours to plan and implement with a heroic commitment on the part of our leadership team, faculty, staff and students.
In the process, Liberty University created the model that other universities should follow for pandemics. In so doing, we protected our students, faculty and staff from COVID-19 cases that existed in the broader Lynchburg, Virginia, community. We are thankful to God that nobody on campus — faculty, staff or students — was infected with the coronavirus.
As tremendous as these results are, they’re contrary to what was reported by The New York Times on March 29 and again on April 16, claiming we had about a dozen confirmed and likely cases of COVID-19, and The New York Times doubled-down when we demonstrated that their information was completely wrong. In an added irony, their reporter and photographer violated our no trespassing rules that were in place to protect our campus family from COVID-19 that would likely be carried by outsiders.
More than 750 media outlets, led by The New York Times, intentionally misled the public to create the impression that COVID-19 existed at Liberty University — and even implied that Liberty was responsible for a COVID-19 death in the surrounding Lynchburg area. We plan to take legal action against The New York Times, in addition to enforcing the trespass warrants that have already been issued against their staff.
As President Trump has learned while he has deftly commanded the federal response to the pandemic and saved hundreds of thousands of lives, our critics in the media don’t stop their attacks during national crises — they only intensify them.
Despite these smears, we are grateful that our pandemic crisis response plan worked, and we intend to share it with other institutions so they may be able to save lives in their communities in the future.
With hindsight, we now have confirmation on what works to protect the health and welfare of our campus family while continuing to serve them; and we are mindful that through a lot of prayers and hard work, we all will see this crisis through to a great American comeback in the near future.
• Jerry Falwell Jr. is the president of Liberty University and the co-founder of Falkirk Center for Faith and Liberty.
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