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Scholars examine effects of pandemic on social welfare field, education

Monday, March 15, 2021

LAWRENCE — Social workers are trained to help people in times of crisis. But what happens when those professionals are experiencing a crisis along with the rest of society? University of Kansas social welfare researchers and students have created a body of work about the COVID-19 pandemic's effects on their education, well-being and profession.

As the pandemic unfolded in early 2020, social welfare researchers saw a call for papers on how the pandemic was affecting the field. At the same time, their students struggled as classes moved online and practicum experiences ended early.

Sarah Jen“We felt like it would be a very big missed opportunity if our students weren’t involved in that, because they are often vulnerable in many ways that faculty members are not,” said Sarah Jen, assistant professor of social welfare. “And we wanted to represent as many voices as possible.”

The research team planned to interview 15-20 social welfare students at the bachelor and master’s levels, yet they heard from nearly 80 students. Scholars eventually interviewed 67 students about how the pandemic had shaped their experiences and sought recommendations on how to incorporate those lessons into educational practice and pedagogy. The findings were published in Qualitative Social Work as a research poem.

MSW students and one BSW student developed the article, and full authorship included (in order): Sarah Cole, MSW student and research assistant; Samantha Mitra, BSW graduate and research assistant; Jennifer Robinson, MSW graduate and research assistant; Jen; Megan Paceley, assistant professor of social welfare; Kortney Carr, associate professor of practice and doctoral student; Michael Riquino, assistant professor of social welfare, and Kelechi Wright, doctoral student.

'Thanks for Hearing Me Out'

Throughout the interviews, students thanked researchers for giving them a chance to reflect on their experiences and for listening. Authors titled their poem “Thanks for Hearing Me Out,” using quotes from interviews and recurring or particularly evocative themes to present the students’ insights and feelings.

“It is a found poem, and while it was a qualitative way to present the students’ experiences, it was also a much more emotional and personal way to share the findings than a traditional journal article,” Paceley said.

One section reads:

“As a social worker, I feel that innate need to do something

about it, but there’s nothing I can do

other than keeping myself safe.

And then I had guilt

because of having health issues…I didn’t know what I was going

to be able to do, I was feeling bad

about not being able to be involved.”

The poem joins a research article under review and a forthcoming book chapter which also present results of the interviews, recommendations and reflections on students’ experiences.

Lessons, tension, losses

Regarding pedagogical lessons, the research team found two primary categories of response: Lessons learned and tensions experienced. While the lessons apply across disciplines, the tensions were specific to social work education. Those included loss versus safety, flexibility versus structure and affective responses versus competing demands. These findings are reported in a manuscript currently under review by the Journal of Social Work Education.

“As social work students, we want to get in there and help. But at the same time, as researchers, we wanted to find out what students were experiencing without bringing in our own conceptions,” Cole said. “There were some profoundly moving moments.”

Many students expressed concerns they were not getting a full educational experience or feared they might not be prepared to enter their profession because of the pandemic’s disruptions. Students also reported feeling isolation, stress and trauma from the pandemic. However, the unique nature of their chosen field of study provided responses such as guilt for taking care of one’s self instead of others, the researchers found.

Research has shown that social welfare students have experienced trauma at rates higher than those of other disciplines and professions. Respondents regularly cited how the stress of the pandemic reminded them of previous traumas and the strain of dealing with this in isolation. The recognition that they needed time to reflect on the pandemic and support from educators was a particularly salient finding, researchers said.

Among the don’ts made clear in the interviews was a tendency of some teachers to assume students had more time since they were home more often and assigned “busy work,” even though it didn’t necessarily further their education. Students stated a preference for education as a collaborative process, in which instructors offered structure, but also flexibility and willingness to adapt in response to student feedback and concerns. Dos included educators who checked in on students to see how they were doing, both personally and academically. Those who helped students navigate through having to cancel or prematurely end practicum experiences were positively noted as well. 

“Students really appreciated when instructors admitted how they were struggling as well,” Jen said. “Acknowledging grief was big also. Nobody can relieve that for you, but they can be with you and relate to you.”

These findings indicate that social work educators and instructors across disciplines should consider values-driven and trauma-informed pedagogical approaches in their work. There is literature on how to teach during national disasters and times of crisis, but students’ indications that such flexibility and understanding of competing demands are helpful should have a place at the educational table at all times, the authors said.

“All of these things were going on before the pandemic,” Carr said of the students’ experience of trauma. “I think that needs to be considered in education at all times: How we can be present with students and consider their needs, even when they are not being exacerbated by a pandemic?”