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Students prepare for early return this week; university relying on same cooperation level as the fall for health and safety

Liberty University will welcome all residential students back to campus by Friday, Jan. 15 — 10 days before in-person classes begin — as part of the university’s efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 on campus and to ensure that the Spring 2021 semester is just as successful as last fall.

Dr. Keith Anderson, executive director of Student Health Center and Wellness Initiatives, said the early arrival will give the university the time needed to assess the situation in a lower-risk environment, as well as for students to acclimate to the campus health and safety guidelines.

“This will be a phased reintegration into the Liberty bubble,” he said. “We recognize that students are coming from different places, so before we put them all in a larger congregate setting, like a classroom or dining hall, we want to identify who may be carrying the virus, then isolate them appropriately.”

For the initial 10-day period, all campus dining locations will be takeout only, and there will be no in-person classes, meetings, or social gatherings. Students will not be confined to their rooms upon arrival and are free to use campus facilities as in the Fall 2020 term, abiding by a mask policy and physical distancing guidelines. The LaHaye Recreation & Fitness Center will function under normal hours (with limited capacity), and the Liberty Mountain Snowflex Centre and Liberty Mountain Trail System will also remain open for recreational purposes. Students are advised to keep their close contacts to a minimum number during this initial phase to minimize the ripple effect on others of a person with COVID-19 returning to campus.

The university will continue to be closed to the public (other than students, parents of resident students, employees, and those doing university business) to reduce the risk of bringing cases of COVID-19 to campus. No Trespassing signs remain posted at all entrances and major intersections on campus.

Once in-person classes begin, Anderson said students should not notice any changes to campus operations from the Fall 2020 semester.

“We are trying to make everything as normal as is possible under COVID,” Anderson said. “After having successful Spring (2020) and Fall (2020) semesters, with breaks in between, we have enough experience to feel confident moving into the Spring of 2021.”

He said the “immense” cooperation of Liberty’s students, faculty, and staff last semester was a large factor in being able to hold classes on campus and continue operations as normal as possible.

“We weren’t born with masks on our faces, but we were made to be in community. Their willingness to go beyond what’s not natural for us in order to stay safe — the whole mantra of ‘Champions Together’ — created an attitude of ‘Whatever we need to do to get through a semester is what we were willing to do.’”

Anderson said that while other schools have already resorted to mostly remote instruction to end the school year, there are some universities who have looked at Liberty’s example and said, “We can do this, too.”

The key is balancing the students’ needs and being conscious of the concerns surrounding a pandemic.

“You don’t go too far by saying, ‘You can’t do anything and we should shut down, and stay at home, then wait for somebody else to solve this problem.’ It’s about balancing concern with what science tells us: if we maintain physical distancing, and we wash our hands, and we don’t show up sick, then we can prevent the spread of COVID-19. Our balanced approach with our faith being the fuel behind it, allows us to satisfy our desires to obey the law of the land while also exercising our freedoms in Christ Jesus.”

Liberty’s Health and Wellness Center is keeping track of all the updates from the Virginia Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Education, including surveying the local area’s positive test result rates and hospital capacities. Anderson participates in a weekly meeting with several local and state representatives for assessment and coordination.

The university will also continue to update its COVID-19 Dashboard weekly with the number of active cases among students, faculty, and staff, as well as quarantine percentages.