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US university tries to resist virus closure, dividing students

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Lynchburg (United States) (AFP)

While schools and universities across the United States closed their doors to curb the coronavirus pandemic, Liberty University in Virginia welcomed back students from vacation -- dividing opinion.

Liberty, a private evangelical Christian institution, held classes for about 2,000 students until this week, when it was finally forced to stop lectures due to statewide emergency regulations.

The university's president Jerry Falwell, the son of a famous pastor, was accused of putting students' health at risk by staying open in an alleged effort to show support for President Donald Trump -- who at first downplayed the virus threat.

"I was very surprised and disappointed to ... learn of President Falwell’s most recent decision to allow students back on campus," Treney Tweedy, the mayor of the local town Lynchburg, said last week.

"We are in the midst of a public health crisis... I believe it was a reckless decision."

Since students returned from "Spring Break" holiday on March 23, the library, restaurants and common areas have remained open, and some students say "social distancing" has been ignored.

"It was foolhardy and made specifically for political intent," said James Bagans, 22, studying for a Master's in Public Health.

"I was horrified, they were not taking this crisis seriously ... They were using this to show their alliance to the conservative administration and Trump's statements (about coronavirus).

"As a Christian, we should really think how our actions affect those around us and how we can protect them. I'm spending 14 days here before I go home to make sure I don't transmit anything to my family."

- Campus risk -

But Falwell justified his stance to keep the university open.

"We have 750 international student with no alternative, nowhere else to go but the dorms," he told local television last week, adding "Trump is managing (the crisis) like you would expect a CEO to do."

Some students, such as aviation student Jared Marshall, want teaching to continue as normal and say precautionary measures were taken.

"Even going to the library, simulator and airport, I didn't see more than two or three people," said Marshall, 20.

"Only me and my instructor, we wiped down the aircraft before and after."

However he said he does not want to return to his family, who live in the south of the state, for fear of infecting them.

"I will stay in my apartment away from people and be hopeful that after this everything can resume, and flight operations are back to normal," he said.

Virginia's strict confinement orders on Monday, issued by Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, finally pushed Liberty University to cancel all of its classes and isolate about 1,000 students on campus.

Trump has built a strong support base among evangelical Christian leaders such as Falwell, and sees them as key to his campaign for the November election when he hopes to win a second term.

But the coronavirus crisis has become the biggest challenge of Trump's presidency as the United States struggles to respond to surging deaths.

The White House suggested Tuesday that 100,000 to 240,000 Americans could die despite massive efforts to beat back the virus.

At Liberty, university authorities said there were no known cases of on-campus COVID-19.

One student living off campus and enrolled in online classes has tested positive.

Olivia Damron, a 19-year-old psychology student, chose to stay on at the largely deserted campus.

"There is not a lot of people at all ... Things are open, food and the library; basically I'm in my dorm studying online," she said.

"We chose to be here, we understand the situation is not ideal.

"As a Christian I feel ... I'm here for a reason. I might not know why yet, but there is a reason.

"I take it day by day."

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