Liberty University, President Falwell releases statement refuting Gov. Northam’s accusations

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LYNCHBURG, Va. (WFXR) – During Wednesday afternoon’s press conference, Governor Ralph Northam urged Liberty University to follow suit with other colleges around Virginia by closing the campus for on-site students due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In response, Liberty University released the following statement:

Liberty University has been, and will continue to be, in compliance with all of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s directives, as well as all applicable federal guidance.

The Governor was quoting scripture today about Christian duty to protect our students. That’s exactly what Liberty has been laboring tirelessly to do over the last couple of weeks. We really think it’s un-Christian to turn students away and push any problems off on someone else. Most of our residential campus students are not in the Lynchburg area. Only about 10 percent of our residential students are currently here on campus. Many of those are international students who did not leave the country on Spring Break and have nowhere else to go. The Governor should understand that.

These students are in their living spaces attending classes and convocations online, not in classrooms or the Vines Center. They are getting their dining plan food by takeout instead of eating in the dining halls. The campus is fairly spacious and uncrowded, so they are spread out and observing social distancing. They are not working out in our fitness centers, not bowling in our bowling alley, not skating in the ice rink, and not engaging in our sports, intramurals, or student organization activities. Touchpoints across campus are being sanitized several times a day.   

The Central Virginia Health District came to Liberty yesterday, Tuesday, March 24, for an unannounced inspection, and they did not find Liberty in violation of any of the State of Virginia’s Executive Order 53 – the Governor’s order that placed temporary restrictions on restaurants, businesses and gatherings. As Jim Bowles, the Environmental Health Manager for the CVHD stated:

“All operations appeared to be in compliance with the Governor’s emergency order, which becomes effective at midnight. We observed that all operations were carry-out only, no seating was provided, and onsite security guards — present at each location — were limiting the number of customers in line to 10.”

Our students are part of the Lynchburg community! They work jobs, have apartments, make economic contributions and pay taxes. That they should be banned or discouraged from choosing to utilize the shelter and food sources that they paid for in a time of crisis is unthinkable. The only Liberty students who are here are adult students who have concluded that this is the only place they have or it is the safest and best place to be, among what may be limited options for them. So yes, we welcomed them to stay and did not ban or discourage anyone from accessing their local food and shelter.

That anyone in the City of Lynchburg would welcome other college students from across the state — and indeed the world — to return “home” to Lynchburg but expect the drawbridge should be pulled up to deny entry to Liberty students illustrates the height of hypocrisy and scapegoating that is going on today.

We invite Governor Northam to come and see our compliance for himself, rather than making false accusations in press conferences from Richmond. As the Ninth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

Also, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. released his own statement:

As the Coronavirus and resulting COVID-19 disease has spread closer to Lynchburg, there has been a dizzying array of governmental advisories, guidelines and orders. Many of our employees are confused. Judging by recent media reports, while the university was making changes and informing students, some employees did not receive an accurate and consistent message about workplace safety, telework authorizations, and leave policies. This message shares how Liberty University is responding to the spread of the COVID-19 Virus, specifically focused on workplace issues, and includes action options for employees. Supervisors should immediately share it with any employees who do not have a workplace computer. 

Leave and Work from Home:

While we are trying to keep as many people at Liberty employed as possible under a very different working environment, we understand workload adjustments may result in some people being unable to continue to work as usual. Leave has been approved for those employees who request it from Human Resources because they have reached 65 years of age or have a documented underlying medical condition that puts them at higher risk for more serious complications from COVID-19. Some high-risk employees can perform their work from home and do not need to take leave. Managers, deans, and executives have been authorized to consider which employees have work that is both quantifiable and trackable, and can also be fully performed at home. Those employees may be temporarily released to work from home (telework). Employees whose work can be fully accomplished from home but is not trackable may be released to temporarily telework at the discretion of management if doing so helps create separation between workspaces. Such at home assignments can be alternated among two or more employees in a team where the team has some essential work that can only be performed in-person in the workplace. Faculty office hours may be handled by telephone at the discretion of the faculty member. Employees whose work is not essential for a short period may be deemed temporarily non-essential and temporarily laid off or reassigned. Employees whose work is essential and must be performed in-person at the workplace will not be released without documentation of a high-risk factor recognized by the CDC. If you want to explore some of these options, please begin discussions with your supervisor and contact Human Resources with any questions or concerns you may still have, especially as they may concern time off. Managers, deans, and executives should keep Human Resources updated on which employees are teleworking and how they are being monitored. 

Governor’s Orders:

Governor Ralph Northam has announced a number of directives, some of which were issued in Executive Orders and others that were simply advisories. Some of them required changes in how the university operated (such as dining areas limited to carry out), and others prompted changes that were good ideas though not necessarily required because the Orders did not apply to Liberty University. 

Two parts of his most recent March 23 Order have raised questions in the minds of many employees. There is a prohibition on public and private gatherings of 10 or more individuals after midnight, March 24.  However, the FAQ issued with that Order clarifies that, “For the purposes of this Order, employment settings are not considered gatherings.” That’s because the Commonwealth recognizes the federal government’s OSHA regulations govern workplace safety, and the Governor’s Order is simply addressing certain types of businesses and K-12 schools that would typically serve members of the general public who enter their properties. 

While Liberty University is a nonprofit institution of higher education and not a “business,” the governor’s directions to all businesses that remain open are somewhat similar to what Liberty follows under the federal laws regulating workplace safety. To the extent possible, in our workplace, we are adhering to social distancing recommendations, enhancing sanitation practices on common surfaces, and acting on appropriate workplace guidance from government officials.  But this workplace guidance is more flexible than, for example, a mandatory 10 person limit on any meeting at any time or location under any circumstance. Managers and employees are in good positions to determine the extent that following these guidelines is possible or necessary, and we encourage everyone to work together to that end, especially in the period between now and April 1. 

Federal Workplace Safety Guidance: 

OSHA requires employers to exercise care to furnish a workplace free from hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm and to provide personal protective equipment appropriate to the employees’ tasks. However, not every step to meet these goals is spelled out in regulations. OSHA recently produced guidance to identify various options for meeting the general workplace standards in the face of new challenges of COVID-19. 

Some of these options are old hat, such as continuation of longstanding guidelines for people who do cleaning functions and those who can reasonably expect exposure to blood and other body fluids. Others are specific to infectious disease outbreaks and some were further updated on March 21 with new information on enhanced cleaning, social distancing, and response strategies for COVID-19. Taken together, these options include: 

– frequently wash hands
– avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth
-sneeze and cough inside of your elbow
-provide tissues, paper towels, disinfecting wipes, sanitizer, soap and trashcans in the workplace
-avoid using other employees’ phones, desks, offices, or orther work tools and equipment when possible
-clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces such as workstations, keyboards, telephones, handrails, doorknobs, and shared business tools and equipment
-avoiding close contact (6 or less feet) with the sick
– enhanced cleaning following contact with suspected or confirmed sick persons
-consider alternate meeting methods and use of open, well-ventilated space for the in-person meetings that must occur
-avoid meetings and other gatherings of 10 or more until April 1
-discourage hand shaking and other greetings involving physical contact
-maintain distances of 6 feet when possible, i.e., in breakrooms
-consider employing strategies of telework, staggered shifts, increasing physical space between workstations and workers, downsizing operations, delivering services via phone or web, and delivering products through pickup or delivery
-have employees with fever, cough, and shortness of breath stay home and inform supervisors
-have employees comply with any requests by public health officials to self-quarantine
-sick employees follow protocols for home isolation before returning to work
-employees living with sick persons inform their supervisors
-inform co-workers about potential exposure to confirmed COVID-19 infected persons while respecting privacy, where possible.

Each of these measures is guidance. Guidance is not mandatory unless it’s the only measure that can be used to prevent likely death or serious physical injury. Different measures can be employed instead and in combination to limit the hazards of death and serious bodily harm on the job. Depending on the individual workplace and workstation, some guidance options may work and some may not. However, they are all worth evaluating for implementation, if they have not already been implemented. Those evaluations are ongoing and can change if the number of confirmed cases appearing in our area changes the risk profile. Conversely, as the risks decrease, the university will begin to return to previous practices regarding workplace distances, cleaning, etc.

Engage in discussions within your individual workspace and with your supervisors to see what is already being done and what else can be done to lower risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Take personal responsibility for what you can do personally. Learn which cleaning and disinfecting tasks our central maintenance staff are handling, which are being done by someone in your department, and which are expected of you personally. 

We appreciate how our administration, faculty, and staff have rallied and helped ensure Liberty University was able to continue to serve our community with the love and strength of Christ and continue its mission of Training Champions for Christ. We pray for God’s continued blessing on our health as we carry out His purpose in our work.”

Jerry Falwell, Liberty University President

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