Universities are supposed to put the education and safety of their students first. But that’s not the case in Virginia, where a group of Liberty University students has filed a federal class-action lawsuit due to their exposure to coronavirus.
By late March, most if not all schools across the nation had shut down and gone to online classes because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Liberty University, an evangelical school run by pastor Jerry Falwell, Jr., ran against the trend. Falwell Jr. announced in March that the Lynchburg, VA school would remain partially open after spring break, even when offering online classes.
“Liberty’s decision to tell its students that they could remain on campus to continue to use their housing, meal plans, parking, and the benefits of the services and activities for which their fees paid, was not only illusory and empty—because there were no more on-campus classes—but it was also extremely dangerous and irresponsible,” lead plaintiff Student A said in the Liberty University lawsuit filed Monday.
In addition, the suit accuses Falwell of downplaying the risks of the illness.
Falwell “states that people are ‘overreacting,’ comparing COVID-19 to the flu, insinuating that the overreaction was politically motivated and even speculated the virus may have been a Christmas present from North Korea or China,” the lawsuit said.
Liberty University Pocketed Fees While Delivering Little
The university has refused to refund fees for returning students, who quickly discovered that many services they’d paid for in their tuition–dining, recreation center, sports, etc–were no longer accessible.
The lawsuit accuses Falwell and Liberty University of “profiting from the COVID-19 pandemic” by keeping campus open and retaining students’ room, board and campus fees “despite no longer having to incur the full cost of providing those services, all the while putting students’ finances and health at risk.”
Liberty Possibly Had COVID-19 On Campus
In addition to retaining tuition fees while not providing promised services, Liberty created an unhealthy environment by allowing students to remain on campus. According to the New York Times, upon the school’s March reopening many students displayed symptoms consistent with COVID-19, and at least one student tested positive.
Falwell, however, has denied the disease claims.
The Return to Campus for Many Schools Remains Unclear
The current thinking by colleges and universities is that on-campus classes and residency might be delayed until even 2021.
Researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health announced Tuesday that the US may have to stomach social distancing and disruptions into 2022. That includes schools like Harvard… and Liberty.
“I think colleges should all definitely make plans for delaying start dates and for intermittent closings and reopenings, because epidemiology modeling suggests we may have to go into open and close waves until potentially even 2022,” Harvard epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding told CNN.
The plaintiffs in the Liberty class action suit are anonymous, as they fear Falwell’s penchant for social media and retribution.
“Liberty University is, in a very real sense, profiting from the COVID-19 pandemic — keeping its campus and campus services ‘open’ as a pretext to retain Plaintiff’s and the other Class members’ room, board and campus fees, despite no longer having to incur the full cost of providing those services, all the while putting students’ finances and health at risk,” according to the lawsuit filed Monday by “Student A.”