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Florida college president Zooms with students isolated due to virus

Palm Beach Atlantic University’s Dr. Debra Schwinn worries about the toll isolation takes on her students.
Palm Beach Atlantic University's new president Dr. Debra Schwinn, left, chats with Pablo Castillo, a senior business major from Guatemala City on Feb. 26 as they walk on campus.
Palm Beach Atlantic University's new president Dr. Debra Schwinn, left, chats with Pablo Castillo, a senior business major from Guatemala City on Feb. 26 as they walk on campus. [ WILFREDO LEE ]
Published Mar. 17, 2021|Updated Mar. 17, 2021

WEST PALM BEACH — Every day at 5 p.m., no matter what Dr. Debra Schwinn is doing, Palm Beach Atlantic University’s new president jumps on a Zoom call — not with faculty or donors, but with students in isolation due to the coronavirus.

Schwinn, a physician and mom, worries about the toll such isolation takes on her students at the small Christian school, some already struggling with the emotional swings college brings. As few as one and as many as 15 students have been on the 20-minute online video calls, where she tries to bolster spirits, finds out if their needs are being met, checks mental and physical conditions and learns what prayers are wanted from her.

It has also given her the opportunity to meet students and build personal bonds unusual for college presidents, particularly new ones.

“It was the one unique thing I could do,” said Schwinn, who took over the school of 3,600 students in May, shortly after the virus gripped the world. “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 University's new president Dr. Debra Schwinn smiles as she talks during an interview.
Palm Beach Atlantic University's new president Dr. Debra Schwinn smiles as she talks during an interview. [ WILFREDO LEE ]

An anesthesiologist and researcher who was previously dean of the University of Iowa’s medical school, Schwinn also has two adult daughters. “I guess this is a bit of my mom hat. What would I want for my child?”

All quarantined students are in contact daily with a nurse, monitor classes online and have meals delivered — but being alone for days or weeks can play havoc with emotions.

Tabitha Maher, a junior music major, has been in quarantine three times because she had symptoms that turned out not to be COVID-19. An extrovert, she found the three-day periods unnerving; the Zoom calls allowed her to retain a sense of connection.

When Schwinn learned Maher is a singer, the president asked her to perform for the Zoom group. Maher sang In My Dreams from the musical Anastasia. At Schwinn’s request, she later rewrote the lyrics to reflect the pandemic.

“It is really rewarding to talk to other people who are going through a similar situation,” said Maher, 20, from nearby Jupiter, Florida. “But it is also knowing that the president of the university is looking out for you, and she wants to hear your voices, your concerns and what is going on.”

Kyle Faircloth, right, Associate Professor of Intercultural Studies, teaches a class at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
Kyle Faircloth, right, Associate Professor of Intercultural Studies, teaches a class at Palm Beach Atlantic University. [ WILFREDO LEE ]
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Like other schools, Palm Beach Atlantic had to decide last summer whether to reopen the campus or stick solely with online learning. Schwinn said administrators, faculty and staff had a prayer day to confirm their decision to bring students back.

But Schwinn hasn’t relied solely on faith. Students and employees must complete daily an electronic questionnaire about whether they have COVID-19 symptoms before being allowed into classes or offices. Masks are mandatory indoors and out, and plexiglass partitions separate students in classrooms.

Schwinn said the school’s average weekly infection rate has been less than 1 in 300 students and staff. No students or employees have died or been hospitalized.

To prevent spread, students who live on campus and become infected move to a dorm that’s been converted into an isolation ward, remaining until they are well.

Palm Beach Atlantic University students chat between classes.
Palm Beach Atlantic University students chat between classes. [ WILFREDO LEE ]

Students who have been exposed but aren’t ill stay in their rooms for at least three days, allowed out daily for one hour of recreation away from other students and the public. Those who show possible COVID-19 signs but haven’t received test results are also isolated.

Pablo Castillo, a senior business major from Guatemala City, said students from his Zoom calls organized daily trips across the street to the picturesque Intercoastal Waterway, where they sat 6 feet (2 meters) apart and talked. Castillo, 22, was quarantined in September after being exposed.

Castillo plans to emulate Schwinn’s lesson of reaching out during his career as an entrepreneur.

“For those of us who are at the bottom of the pole here, the students, to have someone at the top take the time,” Castillo said, trailing off. “This is a great example, to take a step down and connect with people.”

By TERRY SPENCER Associated Press

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