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Liberty University faces lawsuit over lack of fee refunds to students

Credit: WDBJ7
Credit: WDBJ7(WHSV)
Published: Apr. 14, 2020 at 3:05 PM EDT
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Liberty University, in Lynchburg, is facing a multi-million-dollar class action lawsuit for refusing to reimburse student fees in the wake of the coronavirus.

Attorney Michie Hamlett filed the suit in federal court, saying when the pandemic hit, Liberty closed down dining halls except for limited takeout, moved church services and classes online, canceled student activities and told students to go home if they could.

But university President Jerry Falwell, Jr. claimed the school was open, because not all students could leave.

The lawsuit alleges Falwell used those few open dorms to say the school is still open and justify the university's decision to not refund any fees to students who left campus.

The school only offered a $1,000 credit for Fall 2020 to returning students.

Each student paid between $9,000 and $16,000.

With so many families facing economic hardships now, the lawsuit claims the university's decision against refunds is unjust.

Many other schools have refunded portions of students' housing and meal costs due to the pandemic, and some have refunded portions of tuition as well.

The university is run by Jerry Falwell Jr., a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump. Falwell has generally characterized concerns about the virus as overblown. He has accused the news media of stoking fear and suggesting coverage has been politically motivated to hurt the president.

Up through late March, Falwell openly welcomed students to come back to campus at the end of their spring break, through most classes had moved online. Some still had in-person instruction.

His decisions sparked public comments from Gov. Ralph Northam in one of his coronavirus briefings for the state before the governor issued an order requiring all on-campus teaching to stop.

Northam quoted from scripture in urging Falwell to rethink "his message that invites and encourages students to return to campus" in late March.

At a time when a flood of colleges began announcing plans to extend spring breaks or move instruction online, Liberty initially resisted and planned for classes to resume. That also prompted an outcry and a petition was started, asking Liberty to move instruction online.

The university relented and announced a switch, telling students that most classes would be able to finish out the spring term in an online format.

Certain programs, such as aviation, osteopathic medicine and nursing, and certain types of performance classes, like labs, could not be offered online, though, a statement issued at the time said.

Eli Best, a sophomore engineering major from Alexandria in northern Virginia, said he went home for spring break and returned because he had class projects that he thought needed to be finished and required the use of the on-campus machine shop.

“I didn’t see any other way to complete them," he said.

The program was later shut down, and he returned home.

City officials and the top local public health official fielded complaints from concerned residents and Liberty parents about the school's initial response.

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.

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The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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