College President Zooms with Students Isolated Due to Virus


At the end of every workday, Debra Schwinn gets on a Zoom call. As the new president of Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida, she is talking to her students. Many of them are alone in quarantine because of the coronavirus.

Zoom is an internet-based video conferencing service.

Schwinn is also a medical doctor. She worries about how coronavirus restrictions might be affecting the students at the small Christian school she leads.

As few as one and as many as 15 students have taken part in the series of 20-minute calls. Schwinn checks on their mental and physical health during the meetings. She tries to lift their spirits. And she asks them if the university is meeting their needs.

The Zoom calls have Schwinn the chance to meet students and build rare relationships as a college president.

“It was the one unique thing I could do,” she said. “Who, besides myself, could Zoom every night, really get a feeling for what is working from a systems perspective and give that caring, personal touch?”

Palm Beach Atlantic has 3,600 students. Schwinn’s leadership there began in May. Before arriving, she was dean of the medical school at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

The quarantined students speak to a health care worker every day. They attend classes online. They receive food in their rooms. But Schwinn knows that being alone for days or weeks can cause serious mental health problems.

Tabitha Maher is studying music at Palm Beach Atlantic. She has been in quarantine three times after showing possible signs of COVID-19. She said the physical separation from others was emotionally difficult. But, the Zoom calls helped her feel less alone.

When Schwinn learned Maher is a singer, she asked the student to perform for a Zoom meeting. Maher sang In My Dreams from the musical Anastasia.

“It is really rewarding to talk to other people who are going through a similar situation,” said the 20-year-old Maher, adding, “the president of the university is looking out for you, and she wants to hear your voices, your concerns and what is going on.”

Palm Beach Atlantic decided last summer to permit students to return to classrooms. Now, students and employees must answer an online list of health questions every day to gain entrance to the university’s public spaces. Everyone is required to wear covers over their mouths and noses. In class, students are separated by clear, plastic barriers.

Schwinn said the school’s average weekly infection rate has been less than 1 in 300 people. There have been no deaths or hospitalizations, she added.

The university has repurposed one building to serve as quarantine housing. Anyone who becomes infected must move into it and stay until they are well.

Pablo Castillo is a Palm Beach Atlantic business student from Guatemala. He said students on the Zoom calls decided to take daily walks to a nearby park. They talk and visit there while staying a safe distance from each other.

Castillo praised President Schwinn’s actions and plans to behave similarly in the future as a business leader.

“This is a great example, to take a step down and connect with people,” Castillo said.

I’m Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Catherine Weaver was the editor.

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Words in This Story

quarantine – adj. the period of time during which a person or animal that has a disease or that might have a disease is kept away from others to prevent the disease from spreading

unique adj. used to say that something or someone is unlike anything or anyone else

anesthesiologist – n. doctor who specializes in anesthesia or ways of putting people in a state of non-awareness

symptom – n. a change in the body or mind which indicates that a disease is present

reward – v. to give some kind of payment to (someone or something) for something good that has been done

partition n. a wall or screen that separates one area from another

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