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OPINION | The education of Jerry Falwell Jr.

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HOW it must hurt to have to admit: Jerry Falwell Jr. was right.

No doubt this explains why we’re not reading stories about how the president of Liberty University kept his Lynchburg, Va., campus open while keeping his community safe from Covid-19. The doomsday predicted when Mr. Falwell announced Liberty students would return after spring break never came to pass. 

On March 16, three days after that announcement, Mr. Falwell had to abandon his plans for in-person classes when Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam banned gatherings of more than 100 people. So Liberty moved its classes online. Thanks to long experience with such instruction—Liberty already had 100,000 online students—the move wasn’t as wrenching as it was for others. Meanwhile, students could still come back to campus if they chose, and about 1,200 of them did.

From the reaction, you would have thought returning to Liberty was a death sentence. An emergency-room physician told the Daily Beast, “If Liberty University reopens, people will die.”

On March 29, the New York Times ran a news story whose original headline read, “Liberty University Brings Back Its Students, and Coronavirus, Too.”

As the Times reported, nearly a dozen Liberty students had come down “with symptoms that suggested Covid-19,” a fact endlessly rerepeated in other news outlets. A snarky Financial Times op-ed citing “Falwell’s hubris” dropped the qualifiers and asserted “twelve students promptly came down with coronavirus,” which was corrected about a week later.

Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote that Mr. Falwell “seems to have created his own personal viral hot spot.” In one of several critical pieces, the Washington Post headlined a story “An authoritarian power structure brought coronavirus to Liberty University.”

Now the university has finished the school year and the students have gone home. So what actually happened?

To start with, only one student tested positive for coronavirus. Liberty says this was a graduate taking an online course who hadn’t been on campus before or after spring break. Four employees either working remotely or from offices off-campus also tested positive. But Mr. Falwell says no infections were traced back to campus. No Liberty student living on campus tested positive, and no staffer stationed on campus tested positive. But press accounts left a different impression. So far there have been no mea culpas. In fact, now that the story’s had a happy ending, there’s barely been any follow-up at all. Mr. Falwell has company here. Like Mr. Falwell, Gov. Ron DeSantis was pilloried for trying to reopen Florida. Today Politico admits that “DeSantis looks more right than those who criticized the Sunshine State’s coronavirus response” and that the predicted “post-apocalyptic hellscape of coronavirus infection and cadavers stacked like cordwood” hasn’t materialized.

As is true of too much of American life these days, many of the responses are rooted in feelings about Donald Trump. Mr. Falwell is a proud supporter of the president and can sometimes sound like him. The day he announced Liberty’s campus would reopen, he appeared on “Fox & Friends.” There he said people were overreacting to Covid-19, speculated that it might be a Chinese-North Korean operation, and wondered whether it was just “the next attempt to get Trump.”

These remarks provoked a great deal of noise, as Mr. Falwell often does. But critics addressing his university’s response to Covid-19 allowed that noise to distract them from the central question: whether Liberty University was behaving responsibly. The answer has nothing to do with anything Mr. Falwell may say about North Korea, President Trump or evolution for that matter.

Remember, in keeping his university open Mr. Falwell violated no laws or public-health directives. Liberty followed all rules and took additional steps, including constant cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, removing two of every three computers from the lab to ensure social distancing, and quarantining those suspected of carrying the virus in a former hotel 3 miles from campus. Two surprise visits from state health inspectors found no violations.

At this moment other universities are making their own decisions about reopening come fall. Given the uncertainty still remaining—and the sometimes conflicting advice— surely the way forward is to determine who’s been successful and then seek to understand why—and to root for others to succeed whatever they try.

In a part of his early statements on Liberty’s reopening that received almost no attention, Mr. Falwell said in its handling of coronavirus Liberty would prove a “model” for others. Would it kill the critics so quick to paint Mr. Falwell as the Grim Reaper to acknowledge, if only in the name of science, Liberty’s experience might have something to teach them?

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