Liberty University's president has claimed concerns about the spread of coronavirus are overblown.
Virginia's Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday ordered all higher education institutions to stop any in-person instruction amid the coronavirus pandemic, a move likely directed at Liberty University.
The evangelical college in Lynchburg, led by Jerry Falwell Jr., has faced intense criticism over its decision to welcome students back to campus last week after the end of their spring break. The vast majority of classes have been moved online, but the university has said publicly that in-person instruction was necessary for a few select courses.
"We are currently reviewing what the governor said but aren't able to make a comment at this moment," said Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb.
Lamb said he couldn't immediately say whether any in-person instruction was continuing Monday, but the university's website specifically mentioned that flight training for aeronautics courses would "remain in the traditional face to face format."
Falwell, one of Donald Trump's earliest and most ardent high-profile supporters, has generally characterized concerns about the virus as overblown. He has accused the news media of stoking fear and suggested that coverage has been politically motivated to hurt the president.
Still, the university has said it would comply with all applicable governmental directives and guidance concerning COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus that has crippled economies and upended daily life around much of the world.
Last week, Northam quoted from the Bible in urging Falwell to rethink "his message that invites and encourages students to return to campus."
Earlier this month, at a time when a flood of colleges began announcing plans to extend spring breaks or move instruction online, Liberty initially resisted and planned for classes to resume. That also prompted an outcry, and a petition was started asking Liberty to move instruction online.
Two weeks ago, Liberty announced a switch, telling students that they would be able to finish most classes in the spring term in an online format.
Certain programs, such as aviation, osteopathic medicine, and nursing, and certain types of performance classes such as labs, could not be offered online, a statement said.
"Students in those programs and classes will only be able to take them in person but no classes will involve gatherings of more than 100 people," Liberty said.
Eli Best, a sophomore engineering major from Alexandria in northern Virginia, said he went home for spring break and returned because he had class projects that he thought needed to be finished and required the use of the on-campus machine shop.
"I didn't see any other way to complete them," he said.
Best said Monday that all the shops and equipment he needed have since been shut down, and he's returned home.
City officials and the top local public health official have said they've been fielding complaints from concerned residents and Liberty parents about the school's response.
The city of Lynchburg currently has four confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to the latest information available from the state Department of Health.
Falwell tweeted Sunday night that only one off-campus student who never left Lynchburg had tested positive for the virus — a response to a story in the New York Times that said nearly a dozen Liberty students were sick with symptoms that suggested COVID-19.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.