Our primary research questions included:
1) How has the transition to online course delivery affected social work student educational experience in California?
2) How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected students’ overall financial, emotional and spiritual wellbeing?
Methods: We developed and fielded a mixed-methods, self-administered, 38-item online questionnaire. Using the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) online directory, recruitment emails were sent to program directors of each accredited program in California, requesting students enrolled in social work classes at their institutions be invited via email to participate. Questions allow for comparison of sociodemographic information; program level participation and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on educational goals, potential fall 2020 enrollment, and wellbeing. (Note: at the time of this submission, we have finished California data collection. Through CSWE, we also sent the invitation and survey link to the directors of all 597 accredited social work programs across the U.S.; data collection for the national wave closes on May 22, 2020).
Results: Respondents attended 17 social work programs in California, with 352 BSW and 457 MSW students. Their sociodemographic characteristics were African American (7%), Asian (10%), Latino (44%), Multi-racial (7%), White (24%), Other (2%). Students identified as female (87%), male (10%), and non-binary (3%). Many responded that they learned less as a result of all classes being switched to online delivery (62%), while 30% reported that they learned about the same or more. Some (20%) indicated that they preferred online delivery of all classes to in-person classes, and most reported that they would enroll in classes in Fall 2020 whether they were offered entirely online (79%), or entirely in-person (81%). Overall, students reported their wellbeing was somewhat or very much adversely affected (financial security 70%, mental health 82%, spiritual wellbeing 57%). Preliminary themes emerged from qualitative data for example, loss and grieving. A student commented, “I stopped driving for Uber, so I would not infect myself or my 7-month-old son.” Another reflected, “As an MSW graduate, it is heartbreaking to lose the ceremonies and events.”
Implications: The findings suggest current students are likely to proceed with their education, no matter how course delivery proceeds in the fall. At the same time, our findings show that students faced many challenges in terms of their educational experiences and personal lives. Our findings may help support social work programs, administrators and educators in providing targeted resources to groups of students revealed to be most impacted by the shift to online course delivery. Finally, an important limitation of our study is that it is cross-sectional, with data collected in May 2020. At the time of this submission the effects of COVID-19 continue. On-going monitoring of student experience will assist with adjustments necessary in the academy and beyond.