Virginia governor urges Falwell to rethink welcoming students back to Liberty University

LYNCHBURG, VA - DECEMBER 09: Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. is seen during a convocation at the Vines Center on the campus of Liberty University on Wednesday December 09, 2015 in Lynchburg, VA. (Photo by Matt McClain/ The Washington P

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, Virginia's governor asked Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. on Wednesday to reconsider his decision to welcome students back to the Lynchburg campus this week after their spring break.

Speaking at a news conference in Richmond, Gov. Ralph Northam criticized Liberty, which is among the nation's largest and most prominent evangelical colleges, as sending “mixed messages” about COVID-19, the illness that has crippled economies, forced restrictions on the movement of millions of people and swamped health care systems.

RELATED: Jerry Falwell Jr. welcomes 1,100 students back to Liberty University campus amid COVID-19 pandemic

As many colleges nationwide began announcing campus closures this month, Liberty initially planned to continue on-campus instruction. But last week, after Northam restricted gatherings of more than 100, Liberty said it would transition most classes online effective Monday.

However, residential students were told they were “welcome” to return to campus, according to an email sent to students. The move was at odds with many other institutions of higher education, including the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which has said only students who have “no other options” can remain on campus.

“I would suggest that President Falwell look to the actions of the leaders of Virginia’s flagship universities for how to set a strong example in this health crisis and to please reconsider his message that invites and encourages students to return to campus," said Northam, who is a doctor.

Liberty spokesman Scott Lamb told The Associated Press on Tuesday that about 1,100 residential students were back on campus.

Lamb couldn't immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

The university has said it is working hard to comply with all state restrictions while providing safe and reliable accommodations for students, including extra sanitizing measures and changes to on-campus dining.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.