'When Calls the Heart' Returns Without Lori Loughlin as She Pleads Not Guilty in College Scandal

When Calls the Heart returned for a special two-night event on Sunday without Lori Loughlin, who starred as Abigail Stanton

When Calls the Heart returned to Hallmark on Sunday, but Abigail Stanton was noticeably absent.

The drama series aired the first episode of a two-night event sans Lori Loughlin, weeks after the actress pleaded not guilty in the college admissions cheating scandal.

The episode opened with a narration addressing her character’s absence:“We never know how life will turn. It’s been a week since Abigail got word that her mother had taken ill back east. True to her nature, Abigail wasted no time in rushing off to care for her. Abigail is much more than a friend, she’s family. I will miss her and Cody deeply, we all will, but we must get by as best we can. … We all keep Abigail and her family in our prayers in her absence and wish her godspeed. In her absence we must soldier on and we will. We are a community, we are strong, we are Hope Valley.”

In mid-April, series star Erin Krakow (Elizabeth Thatcher) announced that the show had been renewed for a seventh season during the premiere of the Hallmark Channel movie Bottled with Love.

“You’ve already heard When Calls the Heart will returning with a special two-night event Sunday, May 5, and Monday, May 6,” Krakow said. “I’m also thrilled to announce When Calls the Heart season 7 coming next year! We can’t wait to get back to Hope Valley.”

Loughlin, 54, starred as Abigail Stanton on the show from 2014 up until early this year, when the network cut ties after she and husband Mossimo Giannulli were charged in the nationwide scandal involving elite colleges and universities including Yale, Georgetown, the University of Southern California and Stanford.

Bettina Strauss/Crown Media

The network dropped Loughlin on March 14, halting the development of future projects and claiming it would not air any past content featuring the actress.

“We are saddened by the recent news surrounding the college admissions allegations. We are no longer working with Lori Loughlin and have stopped development of all productions that air on the Crown Media Family Network channels involving Lori Loughlin including Garage Sale Mysteries, an independent third party production,” a statement from Hallmark read.

When Calls the Heart producer Brian Bird issued a lengthy statement informing fans that the show had not been canceled, and would return with new episodes after a “retooling” hiatus.

“#Hearties, thank you for your love, support, and patience these last several days as we have all been preoccupied with the news about Lori Loughlin and her family, and the decisions our colleagues at the Hallmark Channel USA needed to make,” he and his fellow producers said in a statement on March 16. “As you can imagine, everyone involved with When Calls the Heart was surprised by these developments, so we hope you can forgive us for initially staying silent while we sorted through how to respond.”

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Mossimo Giannulli and Lori Loughlin. Donato Sardella/Getty Images for LACMA

Loughlin and Giannulli, 55, are facing felony charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud after they allegedly paid $500,000 to have daughters Olivia Jade and Isabella Rose recruited to the USC crew team, despite the fact that neither rowed. (It is unclear whether or not Olivia Jade and Isabella Rose are believed to have known about the alleged scheme.)

If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison for each charge.

Attorneys for the couple have entered formal pleas of not guilty of the charges against them. The couple previously turned down a plea deal — and they continue to insist that going to trial is in their best interest.

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From left: Olivia Jade Giannulli, Lori Loughlin and Isabella Rose Giannulli. Gabriel Olsen/Getty

“Lori feels like so much damage has been done publicly that the only way for her to counter it is to fight this case in court,” a source told PEOPLE. “She feels like once all the evidence is presented, that people will understand how things happened.”

“She doesn’t want to spend time in jail,” the source said, “but she knows that any sort of plea or conviction at this point will include jail time. Her only chance of avoiding jail is to go to court and be found not guilty.”

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