Liberty University will not require students to be tested for COVID-19 ahead of the first day of fall classes, according to a proposed operations plan submitted to the state for approval.
In addition to Liberty, two other institutions of higher learning in the Hill City — the University of Lynchburg and Randolph College — will not make testing mandatory for students, according to draft reopening plans.
The proposed plans, submitted to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia for certification, are expected to be finalized by the end of July. A spokesperson for the council said several plans are undergoing revisions and could differ from their initial drafts.
Instead of testing, Liberty students must complete an electronic health questionnaire before returning to campus and daily symptoms screenings throughout the semester as part of the university’s attempt to shield students and faculty members from the pandemic.
“Liberty will follow applicable public health guidance on who should be tested for COVID-19 and when,” the school’s 23-page proposal for in-person instruction and campus operations states. “Currently, such guidance does not recommend testing all college students and employees.”
According to the yet-to-be-approved plan, Liberty will offer tests to any student or employee who requests one through the university’s health center, including asymptomatic individuals.
Current state guidelines recommend colleges and universities develop a testing strategy for students with COVID-19 symptoms or who have been exposed to the virus. But they do not require those institutions to conduct campus-wide testing.
Still, as the fall semester approaches, a growing number of large colleges and universities across the country, including the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University, are requiring students to undergo a COVID-19 test before classes start.
Purdue University, which Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. has held up as a model for reopening amid the pandemic, also recently announced it would require students to get tested prior to returning to campus.
Liberty is proposing in-person classes for virtually all instruction starting Aug 24. New students and others living in university housing will move in on a staggered schedule the week before classes begin, according to the draft plan.
Falwell told The Morning Show on WIQO last week he anticipates campus will be “full” this fall with a similar number of students when compared to last year. Nearly 15,000 students were enrolled in Liberty’s residential program last fall, of which about 8,000 lived in campus dorms.
“It’s going to be business as usual,” Falwell said on the local radio show.
In addition to social distancing requirements on campus, Falwell said the university intends to “limit the interaction” students have with the local community.
Falwell did not explain how the school intends to decrease interactions between students and the public or how commuter students could be shielded from city residents. Liberty’s draft reopening plan makes no mention of such steps.
“Our campus is pretty much self-contained,” Falwell said. “The ones who have apartments in town, they’re no different than people who already live in those apartments. There’s nothing we can do about that.”
City Manager Bonnie Svrcek said she has not reviewed Liberty’s operations plan but is confident the school will adhere to the state’s health and safety requirements.
“I trust that the college presidents and their board of trustees are going to act as responsibly as they possibly can in the interest of safety for their students and their staff and the community,” she said.
A university spokesperson did not respond to a list of written questions emailed to the college on Monday about the reopening process, including testing requirements.
Under the submitted plan, students are required to wear masks in certain settings, including campus restaurants, stores, event venues and some lab or studio settings. Wearing face coverings is not required — but is encouraged — in other areas of campus, including dorms and where social distancing is not possible.
Campus gyms will operate at 75% capacity and venue spaces will be capped at 1,000 people in accordance with current state restrictions. Convocation, a thrice-weekly campus assembly, will be streamed online at the start of the semester.
Campus Community, a weekly worship event normally held in the 10,000-seat Vines Center, will take place over two services at Thomas Road Baptist Church to allow for social distancing. Face coverings are required during the start and end of the service but are not mandatory during the praise and worship portions.
Social distancing requirements, which call for at least six feet of separation between individuals in most places on campus, will be enforced by campus security personnel and other employees, the plan states.
Liberty’s draft plan also outlines certain “triggers” that would force the school to transition to online-only education or to shutter much of campus.
Among the criteria that would lead to a shutdown include a government order, a lack of available testing or a lack of space to quarantine sick students. Liberty plans to house quarantining students at a former university-owned hotel located a few miles north of campus.
According to the plan, if 5% of Liberty’s total on-campus population — including students, staff and faculty — test positive for COVID-19, the school will suspend in-person instruction in favor of online education. If 15% become infected, Liberty will close the campus and dismiss students. Students unable to return home will be allowed to remain in campus dorms.
Nathan Creekmore, a rising junior studying nursing who was critical of Liberty’s approach to the pandemic earlier this spring, said he is encouraged by the social-distancing requirements and mandatory health screens outlined in the proposed reopening plan.
Still, he is concerned the school will not readily enforce those measures when the time comes, especially since Falwell has repeatedly and publicly denounced the coronavirus restrictions handed down by the state.
“I’m scared that security and employees are not going to enforce the requirements enough or — more realistically — the student population is just not going to care enough,” he said. “They can put all these things in place, but it actually comes down to how strictly they try to enforce it.”
Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.
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