Abstract: Social Work Students and the Coronavirus Pandemic: Implications for Field Education (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Social Work Students and the Coronavirus Pandemic: Implications for Field Education

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Rebecca Mirick, PhD, LICSW, Assistant Professor, Salem State University, MA
Ashley Davis, PhD, LICSW, Clinical Associate Professor, Boston University, Boston, MA
Background & Purpose: In March 2020, the federal government declared a national emergency due to the novel coronavirus disease and many states required all non-essential employees to work from home. These public health measures had vast social and economic repercussions. Agencies and organizations where social work students completed field placements were among the businesses abruptly closed, and many social work programs made rapid decisions to withdraw students from field placements. The Council on Social Work Education released a statement permitting reduced field hours and remote learning activities (CSWE, 2020).

This type of national crisis is unprecedented in modern social work education. Previous studies have documented the effect of natural disasters and terrorism such as Hurricane Katrina and September 11th (Colarossi et al., 2007; Lemieux et al., 2010) on field education. Those events—while devastating, unexpected, and far-reaching—did not indefinitely halt the daily lives of people across the country. Social work education does not yet understand the impact of this unique time on social work students in field, including stressors, needs, gaps in learning, and new learning opportunities. This study aims to fill in these knowledge gaps.

Methods: Two weeks after the declaration of a national emergency, directors of all CSWE-accredited programs were contacted and asked to share with their students a one-time, anonymous survey that included questions about the practice setting, communication from the school and agency, experiences with remote service delivery and terminations, connection to social work practice, and students’ academic and personal concerns. The quantitative data were analyzed with descriptive statistics. A thematic analysis is being conducted with the qualitative data in Dedoose (Braun & Clarke, 2006).

Results: Participants (N=1515) included BSW (n=628) and MSW (n=887) students, 68.2% in their final semester. Students had varied experiences with field placement following the state of emergency; 50.4% abruptly terminated with clients, 46.2% completed alternative assignments, and 50.1% began providing services remotely, although 68.3% had not received training. 46.2% Many reported increased stressors; more parenting responsibilities (20.5%), non-parenting caretaking responsibilities (22.1%), loss of employment (28.3%), reduction in hours/income (35.1%), unstable housing (10.0%), and food insecurity (17.5%). Due to field disruptions, participants worried about job opportunities (61.3%), licensure (59.5%), loans (57.4%), graduation delays (45.6%), and, for BSW students, graduate school (58.8%). Themes about remote work centered on challenges with technology, client engagement, and managing multiple roles, but also included benefits of remote work. Participants found it helpful when social work programs communicated clearly and often, remained connected, and reassured students.

Conclusions & Implications: Students had diverse experiences. Some have gaps in experiential learning about termination, especially students with only one placement. Others may need support integrating new learning with classwork and practice, telehealth training, or connection to support services. As this crisis continues, social work programs should assess and fill in gaps in professional training, and provide tangible and emotional support for students with increased financial strain and family responsibilities.