Abstract: School Social Work Practice in Diverse Communities during COVID-19: Implications for Practice and Research (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

School Social Work Practice in Diverse Communities during COVID-19: Implications for Practice and Research

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Independence BR B, ML 4 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Ashley-Marie Hanna Daftary, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Nevada, Reno, Reno, NV
Stephanie Lechuga-Peña, PhD, Assistant Professor, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Jandel Crutchfield, PhD, LCSW, Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Arlington, Arlington, TX
Erin Sugrue, PhD, Assistant Professor, Augsburg University, Minneapolis, MN
Background: Research suggests that school social workers (SSWs) can play an important role in mitigating the negative mental health effects of COVID-19 (Ali et al., 2019; Burns et al., 1995; Haleemunnissa, Didel, Swami, Singh, & Vyas, 2020; Loades et al., 2020). Unfortunately, even as students have experienced increasing mental health difficulties related to the social consequences of COVID-19 (e.g., enforced isolation), SSWs have reported lower levels of student participation in social work services compared to before the pandemic (Jiao et al., 2020; Kelly et al., 2020; Loades et al., 2020; Nearchou et al., 2020). Other challenges faced by students, staff, and schools during the pandemic include: food insufficiency, health issues, and housing instability (Kelly et al., 2020). Subsequently, this research study aimed to understand how SSWs’ roles, responsibilities, and work tasks shifted during Spring 2020 distance learning to address students’ and families’ needs.

Methods: An exploratory qualitative research design was used to investigate SSWs’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Twenty SSWs across three states participated in 37 key informant interviews in the Spring and Fall Semesters of 2020. Three quarters of the SSWs (n=15, 75%) were white and three quarters (n=15, 75%) worked in schools that served majority Students of Color. The audio was transcribed and uploaded to Atlas.ti for data management. The data was analyzed using a constant comparative approach, including three coding cycles (Saldaña, 2009).

Findings: Participant narratives revealed that SSWs’ interactions with both students and their parents changed dramatically throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most substantial shifts in school social work practice related to increased contact and interaction with students’ parents, particularly in the months following the physical closure of schools. Increased communication with parents centered around two major activities: (1) food assistance and other resource referrals for families and (2) parent check-ins and coaching. A second major shift relates to SSWs practice with students. Not only did their contact with students decrease, their mode of communication with students also changed. Most regular tier 2 (small group) and tier 3 (individual) meetings with students took place via video conference (also described as synchronous virtual meetings or telehealth sessions). The findings highlight the barriers SSWs encountered when providing social-emotional telehealth interventions, including poor attendance resulting in ineffective group interventions, technology-specific barriers, and concerns regarding students’ privacy. In addition, participants indicated an awareness of increasing health and educational disparities for students and families (i.e., based on socio-economic status, race, and immigrant status) during the pandemic and the many barriers they face in addressing these disparities in their daily practice prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conclusion and implications: Considerations for school social work practice and research are discussed. This includes increased (1) attention and focus on anti-oppressive practice and prevention, (2) parent engagement, and (3) advocacy for additional funding to decrease current disparities, especially for communities most negatively impacted by the pandemic (i.e., students who have fallen behind academically and/or have been negatively impacted socially, emotionally, or behaviorally).