Masking will not be mandated, but officials at the Lynchburg, Va., school said it is “strongly encouraged.” Some large gatherings will continue to be held outside, and other events held indoors would be limited to 50 percent capacity. For a time, students can choose to take classes virtually.
School officials had promoted campus life since the spring as a joyful return to normal: no requirements for vaccines or masks.
“I find it alarming,” said MaryJane Tousignant-Dolan, the mayor of Lynchburg. “I just think it’s unconscionable that an institution as large as Liberty has not instituted some steps to keep not only their students safe and healthy, but the community in which they live.” With cases increasing and the hospital system stressed, she said, “It’s going to be scary times.”
A father shared emails he sent to university officials, saying his children had still been required to attend some classes in person during the “temporary mitigation period,” from Aug. 30 to Sept. 10, and pleading with the school’s leaders to make changes, to avoid endangering vulnerable people in the surrounding community, such as members of congregations at the churches students attend.
But many students had been fighting the switch to virtual classes, asking for the freedom to make their own choices.
Landon Nesbitt, a first-year student from California who created a petition calling for an end to the restrictions that was signed by 1,300 students, said that Liberty’s promise of normal campus life was a major draw when he was applying to colleges. “I’m not a science denier,” he said. “I’ve seen the effects that covid has — it has affected people quite close to me.” But, he said, “I am a Christian,” and that means he is called on to live his life not ruled by fear.
In the announcement to the campus community Friday, school officials wrote, “At Liberty University, we recognize we are part of a larger community that is generally pursuing life and business as usual without vaccine mandates, mask requirements, or attendance caps on events. We can’t imagine Liberty would make an important health difference locally by imposing campus restrictions and mandates.
They added that while the school values personal liberty and resumes in-person classes next week, people should “be Christlike examples and good neighbors as we interact with those who may be more vulnerable in our community.”
Tousignant-Dolan was incredulous that university officials seemed to be saying their rules wouldn’t have an impact on the surrounding community. “I just don’t understand that,” she said. “Of course it would make an important health difference locally if you had restrictions. Because these people are out in the community with the rest of us.”
Liberty reported 463 active cases in a weekly update about the impact of the coronavirus posted on the university’s website. Of those, 399 are students. More than 1,800 people at Liberty have been asked to quarantine, including 1,278 students on campus and 402 students who commute to classes.
The private university is well known nationally as an evangelical and political center. The school did not require students and employees to be vaccinated or to wear masks on campus, and it welcomed students back with large indoor and outdoor events.
For some students and families, that was a draw — a welcome relief from all the imposed restrictions for the many months of the pandemic. But after a quick rise in cases, Liberty pivoted to virtual instruction a week after classes began. The university paused indoor events and added takeout options and expanded outdoor seating to its dining areas.
“The campus infection rate is higher than at anytime last year, our only local hospital is reaching capacity for ICU COVID treatment, and we project our Annex quarantine capacity to be reached soon,” school officials wrote in late August.
Convocations and worship services were to be held outside rather than indoors during the “mitigation period,” and that will continue, weather permitting. Quarantine space was at 50 percent capacity Friday, a spokesman for the university said.
Colleges across the country had planned for normal, or near-normal, campus life this fall, trusting that vaccines would help keep people safe. But the delta variant of the coronavirus complicated those plans.
Some universities that had not yet mandated vaccination and mask-wearing for students and employees added those requirements as more became known about the delta variant.
Case numbers are tricky to compare from school to school. There are wide variations in how many, and how often, people are tested on various campuses. But Liberty’s 983 cases since Aug. 23 stand out in Virginia colleges of similar size. Scott Lamb, a spokesman for the university, said this fall marked the largest residential enrollment ever for the school, with 15,000 students living on or commuting to campus.
James Madison University in nearby Harrisonburg, Va., with about 20,000 undergraduates in 2019, has reported 210 cases since Aug. 10. Students are required to be vaccinated, and employees who are not working fully remotely must be tested weekly if they are not vaccinated. Masks are required inside public spaces.
The University of Virginia in Charlottesville, with about 17,000 undergraduates two years ago, reported 352 cases thus far this fall. Students and UVa. Health employees are required to be vaccinated; other employees are expected to be vaccinated and tested weekly if they are not. Masks are required indoors in public spaces.
Virginia Tech, with nearly 30,000 undergraduates in 2019, reported 113 positive tests since Aug. 2. The university requires students and employees to be vaccinated, and masks indoors in public areas.
Robert Locklear, a senior at Liberty, said it has been strange to see crowds of people without masks — and then startling to see so many friends on social media sharing that they tested positive.
Having seen friends and family sickened by the disease, with some needing hospitalization and ultimately dying of it, Locklear said, “it has been a weird experience for me to hear people at a Christian college say they love everyone, and then denounce covid regulations [implemented] to keep everyone safe.”
Nesbitt, the student who had started the petition calling for an end to the mitigation period, was pleased to learn that Liberty was taking that step. “That’s a major blessing,” he said.