During the first COVID-19 wave, nearly 90% of students globally were impacted by lockdowns. This shift to distance learning placed a heavy burden on parents/caregivers who were suddenly asked to balance work, childcare and education in the midst of increased financial stress, health concerns, and social isolation. Parental depression and anxiety, intimate partner violence (IPV), adult substance use, all increased. Marginalized communities, migrant groups, and those in lower socioeconomic neighbourhoods were disproportionately impacted, with the burden of educating children in the home disproportionately falling to women.
To address this complex problem, battle the compounding inequities exacerbated by COVID-19, and create solutions across systems, a university-community partnership was struck with a local school board to create a counselling program within The School of Social Work. The Support and Aid to Families Electronically (SAFE) practicum program was designed to provide free and immediate online counselling provided by social work interns (7 MSW and 1 BSW students) for parents/caregivers referred by school board social workers.
The objective of this mixed method feasibility study was to examine the SAFE pilot program (Jan-June 2021). The following feasibility objectives were examined: 1) acceptability, how satisfying, appropriate and positive or negative SAFE was; 2) demand for SAFE; and 3) success or failure of implementation of the pilot. This research utilized an integrated knowledge translation (IKT) approach. Thematic analysis of semi-structured interviews, focus groups and qualitative surveys with service users, SAFE students, practicum education office and school board staff (n= 36), was supported by descriptive statistical analysis of referrals, pre and post Parent Stress Index and demographic information.
Each feasibility objective was examined. 1) Acceptability of the program was consistent, in particular the focus on parents, one parent asserted, “therapy made me a better me for my children.” 2) In terms of demand, 35 families from diverse backgrounds engaged in counselling. Participants stressed the importance of the program. Referrals to the pilot, however, were slightly lower than anticipated, attributed to extended school closures and stress in the system. 3) The implementation achieved the goal of accessibility through a flexible approach, no wait-list, and unlimited sessions. Translation services enabled support to newcomer families. Virtual services increased accessibility without negatively impacting service delivery. Access to, and cost of, the internet was a barrier but schools provided Chromebooks for families in need. As one practicum office participant identified, SAFE was “able to pivot and respond to the needs of the families and the school board in a way that in other organizations it would be impossible to do.”
The SAFE pilot program performed well in the feasibility areas that were explored. The program augmented school social work and addressed barriers such as wait-times and accessibility, while increasing practicum opportunities. The IKT approach ensured knowledge users were involved in the evidence-based development of this program. This research has direct implications for this community social work service and university school-board partnership, as well as advancing general knowledge of social work education, school social work services, and remote service delivery.