How Christian Colleges Are Responding to COVID-19

This week is my scheduled spring break, so I was expecting to be home, catching up on grading and writing a chapter in my Lindbergh book. But I didn’t expect that this break would last two weeks, nor that when classes resume on March 30th, they would be taught online through our Easter break.

Such is life when a novel coronavirus spreads at an exponential rate. I’m grateful that our institutional leaders have made this adjustment, and wouldn’t be surprised to learn this week or next that we’ll need to extend our online session even longer — perhaps to the end of the semester. I’m working on my plans for teaching online and will probably share them in a post later this week, in case that might be helpful to anyone else in this situation.

It’s amazing how quickly all of this has changed. A week ago, I was informing friends at Bethel that Seattle Pacific University had become the first school in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU) to suspend in-person classes and move online. At that point, I think SPU was one of only twenty or so colleges and universities to make that call. But in the following days, as more and more major universities took similar steps and states began recommending more extreme social distancing measures, more and more schools Bethel’s size and type began to shift online.

Just how common is that approach at this point in the COVID outbreak? I took some time today to go through the list of the CCCU’s 123 full members and collaborative partners in the U.S. and Canada to see what each institution had decided — at least in terms of regular academics. (Of course, campus housing, dining services, campus ministries, athletics, and study abroad are also affected, among other services. But I didn’t want to spend too much time gathering information that’s bound to be out-of-date within days. I’m pretty sure something I’m about to report will be obsolete by tomorrow at this rate.) You can see the full spreadsheet here, with each institution’s coronavirus page for reference, but a few bullet points:

• The vast majority of the 123 schools either are doing like Bethel and moving classes online (or some other remote option) at least into the first or second week of April — many after an extended spring break meant to help students, faculty, and staff make that transition.

• Almost all of them are taking these steps proactively, rather than waiting for an actual COVID infection. As far as I can tell, only one CCCU member has had a positive test for the novel coronavirus: a student at Campbell University in North Carolina, which plans to be online through April 3rd.

• Around twenty CCCU schools have already made the decision to spend the rest of the academic year online. Most of them are institutions on the West Coast (Biola, Concordia-Irvine, Multnomah, Pepperdine, Point Loma Nazarene, Seattle Pacific, Simpson, Trinity Western) and in the state of Illinois (North Park, Olivet Nazarene, Trinity Christian, Wheaton). But that list also includes schools as far-flung as Eastern University (outside Philadelphia) and Northwestern College (Orange City, Iowa).

• About a dozen schools are on regular or extended break and still waiting to make a call about moving classes online. That list includes Gordon, Vanguard, and Oral Roberts, whose president told members of that community that the school’s “present plan is to return to campus on March 23 to complete the semester, but we also believe it would be good for you to be prepared for other options should they be required.”

• As far as I can tell, only five four CCCU full members and collaborative partners seem to have definitely decided (at this point) to have face-to-face classes continue as an option. For example, last Thursday Judson (AL) president Mark Tew announced that “classes will resume as normal on March 23,” after that college’s regular spring break. Booth University College, a Salvation Army school in Winnipeg, will let faculty decide whether to teach online or on campus. Three Two schools — Regent (VA), San Diego Christian, and William Jessup — are requiring faculty to offer both modes, with students deciding for themselves whether they stay on campus or take classes remotely.

Why are those schools bucking the trend? Tew cited Judson’s campus size, “our intentionally small classes, and the non-urban nature of our verdant, rural setting.” San Diego Christian’s announcement pointed to its class sizes, plus its experience “utilizing dual-modality classroom experiences over the past six years.” William Jessup says it will rely on students to make good decisions, either self-quarantining if they show COVID symptoms (or had been in contact with someone testing positive) or engaging in social distancing if they seem healthy.

Regent acknowledged seeming “unique for keeping our campus open,” but contended that “most workplaces, schools, universities, and meetings are continuing without interruption. In fact, the CDC continues to state: ‘For the majority of people, the immediate risk of being exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to be low. There is not widespread circulation in most communities in the United States.’ The CDC is not currently recommending suspension of classes at K-12 or universities when there are no cases of COVID-19 in those settings.” [UPDATE: When I checked Regent’s website, the COVID-19 headline still linked to the Friday announcement that I quoted above. But here’s the Saturday announcement: Regent has indeed joined most other CCCU schools in moving classes online. I’m sorry for the oversight, and tried to clean up the text above in accordance with the more recent announcement.]

Then there’s Liberty University, which is not a CCCU member but enrolls tens of thousands of Christian students online and at its Lynchburg, Virginia campus. Not surprisingly, Liberty president Jerry Falwell, Jr. has taken an unusual approach to the situation. While the university’s weekly convocation service moved online and international study programs were canceled, Falwell decided that face-to-face classes for those 16,000 students would resume after spring break. When one Liberty parent went on Twitter to question the wisdom of keeping classes on campus, Falwell called him a “dummy.”

By contrast, Liberty’s neighbors at the University of Lynchburg extended spring break and will have classes online from March 23 until further notice. And Grand Canyon University, Liberty’s chief competitor for the title of “largest Christian university,” moved “all but a few classes” online to finish the semester. Like GCU, Liberty already teaches more students online than on campus, so you’d think it would be easier to make that transition at Liberty than at most schools.

Then again, Falwell had previously gone on Fox News to suggest that coronavirus was a Chinese and North Korean plot, with the media’s coverage of COVID-19 just its “next attempt to get Trump.” But here it’s worth noting that some of the most politically conservative members of the CCCU have joined the rush to move online. Colorado Christian University, home to the right-wing Centennial Institute, doesn’t start its spring break until Wednesday, then plans to finish the semester online. College of the Ozarks, famous for requiring “patriotic education” of its students, closed its campus at least until April and took classes online until further notice.

Update: remember what I said above about my research quickly becoming obsolete? Almost the same minute I posted, Liberty announced that it would move most classes online, with Falwell attributing the decision to Virginia governor Ralph Northam banning all events involving 100+ people. (H/T Bonnie Kristian)