The COVID-19 pandemic upended higher education with sudden changes to online/distance-based learning followed by significant shifts in the educational experience due to COVID-19 precautions. These changes were ongoing throughout the first year of the pandemic and students continued to experience losses in their family systems, daily life, and academic experience. The impact of the long-term, drawn-out nature of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic on social work students in the United States has yet to be explored.
The aim of this qualitative study was to: a) elucidate students’ experiences of loss, grief and stress during the first year following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic ; b) examine differences in types of losses expressed by students ; and c) explore the relationship of students’ experience of various losses to their experiences of stress for the first year following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This study utilized a phenomenological qualitative design. Ten one-on-one, 60-90 minute interviews were completed with undergraduate and graduate social work students across the U.S. with questions focused on experiences of stress, loss and grief following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic between April-May 2021. Interviews were transcribed and analyzed using the hermeneutic circle through inductive analysis. Data saturation was achieved after the eighth interview. Qualitative data were analyzed inductively and NVivo was used to identify assess codes and themes. Analytic memos, bracketing, a second coder, and member checking were utilized to increase rigor.
The main themes emerging from the analysis included constant adjustment, pervasive loss, and unique stressors. Constant adjustment included the change from in-person to online educational programming and delivery, as well as adjustment to schooling from home. The second theme was pervasive loss, which included sub-themes of loss of interaction, loss of expected experiences, loss of independence/freedom, job loss, and loss of a loved one. Unique stressors included the experiences of widespread shared trauma with clients in field placements, the black lives matter and racial reckoning movements, protests, and riots, and the stressors with hospitalized loved ones during the pandemic. Participants also identified supportive and unsupportive practices in the classroom and in communication strategies from their institutions.
This qualitative study thereby offers important insights into the experiences of undergraduate and graduate social work students’ experiences of loss, grief and stress during the first year of the pandemic with important implications for informing future educational responses. The constant change and adjustment required for students while coping with pervasive losses highlights the need for classroom and programmatic responses to help manage the multiple demands of academic disruption for students.