Ronnie Egan, Betty Haralambous and Patrick O’Keeffe
The catalyst for the second edition of this book emerged from RMIT’s Partnership Reference Group in response to the impacts of the global pandemic on field placement supply and delivery. There was collective agreement that the long-term relationships between RMIT Social Work and the field through field education and beyond allowed us to rapidly respond to the needs of students, agencies and the community and continue to provide social work field education over 2020 and 2021. This book is a testament to the strength of these relationships demonstrated in the trust, respect, shared vision, flexibility, and reciprocity exhibited during this period. The book brings together the narratives of the RMIT Field education team and eleven of our industry partners about their experiences of providing social work placements during a global pandemic.
Field education continues to be integral to the delivery of Social Work programs and is identified by students as their most significant learning experience (Garthwait, 2008; Lam et al., 2007; Maidment & Crisp, 2011; Smith, Cleak, & Vreugdenhil, 2015). The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted the provision of field education placements in many countries, including Australia (Crisp et al. 2021). The pandemic has caused placements to be cancelled, postponed and terminated early (Archer-Kuhn et al. 2020; Davis & Mirick 2021; Mitchell, Sarfati & Stewart 2021). As highlighted in chapter 2 of this book, Social Work departments have needed to develop university-based placement models, facilitated and supervised by faculty staff (Davey et al. 2020; Mitchell et al. 2021; Crocetto 2021). This is undoubtedly an important innovation in field education. However, we suggest that the pandemic has reiterated the need to work collaboratively and redesign field education delivery with the sector.
Agency closures and working from home arrangements have changed the face of the human service sector. Social Work Education regulations and standards at national and international levels have been adjusted to the changed circumstances (Crisp et al. 2021). An already stretched field education environment which struggles with the economic imperatives of higher education enrolments and resultant increase in placement numbers, sector constraints which decreases the number of available quality placements, and the regulatory context has been further exacerbated by the pandemic (Egan, Hill and Rollins, 2021). What has been highlighted in the current environment is Bogo’s (2015) claim that the future of social work field education lies in closer relationships between universities and the field. At RMIT this closeness has led to a rapid response that has allowed all students, wanting to be placed in the pandemic, to complete their placements. This book highlights the significance and value of the RMIT partnership approach throughout the pandemic, making an important contribution to international debates around the redesign of field education. Whereas many responses to the pandemic have illustrated the potential for university-based field education as a more sustainable model of field education, the contributions in this book suggest that mutually beneficial partnership arrangements with agencies can provide meaningful, quality and sustainable placements, even during crisis periods.
The history of and the current approach to RMIT social work partnerships has been documented in the first edition of the partnership book (Egan, 2018). The RMIT partnership approach has been informed by its history of relationships with the human service sector, confronting the crisis of finding enough social work placements, producing quality and transformative learning experiences for our students and drawing on the key characteristics which inform effective Community- Academic – Partnerships (CAPs) (Drahota et al, 2016). CAPs have been developed for research purposes however these key characteristics are foundational to social work values, ethics and practice and have been demonstrated in our partnerships during the pandemic. Without our partners RMIT social work could not have navigated this challenging time. Partners had to rapidly adapt to address real world problems confronted by human services during the pandemic working with some of the most disadvantaged communities, whilst also providing quality placements. The RMIT Partnership Reference Group, consisting of our partners providing most of our placements, continued to meet during the pandemic and the focus for this year was the development of this second edition book. The Group has transcended the education and training of students and offers organisations ways of addressing their workforce development challenges through the employment of work ready and orientated graduates as well as ongoing professional development opportunities, research projects and access to university resources.
The remainder of this chapter provides an overview of the impact of Covid-19 on our partners as well as an outline of the internal RMIT placement project and the structure of the book. In detailing the impact of Covid-19 we highlight the risk assessment process including the vaccine roll out, the development of online placements and innovations in this space and the centrality of offsite supervision.
Impact on partners
Prior to the pandemic RMIT began 2020 with an excess of social work field education placements reflecting the strong relationship between RMIT and Industry Partners. The RMIT field education team along with the administrative Global, Urban and Social Studies Work Integrated Learning (GUSSWIL) team were in a privileged position of strong associations with a cross section of the health and community services sector.
The initial impact of the pandemic, when it occurred in early semester 1 with 2020 students on placement only for about six weeks, was unknown. There was no sense of the length of the lockdown nor the magnitude of the situation. An initial reactive approach was required and appropriate as we waited for the situation to unfold. As it progressed, directives and new requirements and regulations were emerging from state and federal governments, the university and national association of Social Work. Adhering to government health directives, University directives, government initiatives, agency policies and student needs was a major challenge.
In semester 1, 2020, in response to Covid-19, RMIT implemented compulsory risk assessments for all agencies involved in student placements. This occurred where students were working in agencies either with or without direct client contact. This was a new process for RMIT, the social work field education program and partner agencies. It was a time consuming and demanding initiative but nonetheless a critical aspect of the field education experience at the time. It required additional inhouse administrative preparation, management endorsement, discussion with students by field education coordinators and discussions with agencies, including collection and review of agency documents such as Covid-19 Safe Plans.
In semester 1 2021, as agencies transitioned from working remotely to returning to offices, this was also the case for placements. Placements included face-to-face only, remote only, and combinations of both. If there was a face-to-face element in the placement, RMIT required a risk assessment to be completed. As this situation improved in Victoria this was no longer a requirement of the University in 2021. All that was required from RMIT in semester 2, 2021 was a copy of each agency’s Covid-19 Safe Plan.
Online placements and liaison/OSS supervision
The suspension of face-to-face placements during semester 1, 2020 and then the University decision to endorse only remote placements in semester 2 had a major impact on the planning and delivery of placements. Traditionally all placements with partner agencies were face to face, including direct practice and project or research-based placements.
As the pandemic worsened in Victoria, all semester 2 2020 Social Work RMIT placements were provided remotely. This meant students were not able to attend an agency on site but undertook a placement from their own homes. These tasks included project work, client support work, community development activities, supervision, meetings. This process and the adaptability of agencies to continue to support students via online platforms was again a reflection of the strong relationship between RMIT social work field education and the sector. Liaison and supervision was also conducted remotely. This was consistent with other RMIT practices in response to the Covid-19 situation. It was also consistent with AASW responses to Covid-19. It provided for a more flexible approach for supervisors and liaison staff and agencies provided positive feedback about the experience.
Agencies considered a range of flexible practices in the remote environment and worked in partnership with RMIT to provide a range of student opportunities. These included:
- Develop agency resources
- Develop tip sheets or guidelines
- Undertake literature review
- Develop policies or guidelines
- Write case studies related to direct practice experience
- Assisting with the development of an agency policy (e.g., volunteer policy)
- Contributing to review & implementation of policy
- Contribute to the development of a new program
- Evaluate a new service and document the process
- Survey administration (via phone or email)
- Data analysis
- Client phone welfare checks
- File review
- Support strategies: staff and clients
- Media analysis and client group
- Use social networking apps (e.g., What’s App) to create social activities such as paint-by numbers, book club, health and wellness education for adolescent and aged care populations
- Complete virtual or telephone check-ins for older adults in assisted living facilities and nursing homes with limited social contact
- Facilitate virtual peer support groups for displaced students and/or community member
- Design a group curriculum for virtual or future face-to-face sessions (e.g., managing anxiety, employability and job skill development, navigating online classrooms)
- Develop agency training on various topics (e.g., ethical decision-making, cultural competency)
- Research potential grant opportunities and prepare aspects of the grant in response to the pandemic
- Participate in resource mapping for the agency
- Organize or support community drives for needed goods and services
- Initiate a social marketing campaign on social distancing, self-care
- Write an opinion piece on ethics and telehealth for publication in social work magazines and/or local newspapers
- Covid-19 specific ideas
- How agency has responded to Covid-19, implications for client group?
- Strategies for transitioning from face to face to online service provision
- Research and compile a list of Covid-19 community resources for digital and other social media content for information-sharing and education
- Review local, state, and federal policies on emergency preparedness and create a Covid-19 policy for the field agency
Online/remote placements offer good opportunities for agencies to undertake that long awaited policy, project or evaluation work that has not been able to be completed in the past due to other demands.
As the government responses to the pandemic moved in and out of different phases, our responses did too. Our most recent priorities, in 2021, were responding to the vaccination directives and working with agencies to meet their requirements prior to and while students were on placement. This has added again a new dimension to the compliance requirements of the field education program and the agency.
Outcomes and learnings
The pandemic has produced a range of outcomes and learnings which are outlined in this book. Social work education has demonstrated its adaptability in a climate of innovation and change. Internationally and nationally regulations and standards governing social work field education practice have suddenly changed and shifted in the pandemic environment. These changes have generated principles and parameters to redesign field education, reflecting the values and principles of best social work practice. These relate to concern and compassion around student wellbeing and community safety as the foundation for all decision making, the need for flexibility in adapting to dynamic and challenging environments, recognising, and advocating the positive contribution that placement makes to communities and workplaces, the significance of partnerships and collaborations and generating new knowledge through the documentation of experiences of innovative responses (AASW 2020). The innovations include the reduction of placement hours, more flexible placement models, greater acceptance of external supervision, online/simulated learning and academic models of placements provision. It highlights that previous resistance to long held conceptualisations and provision of field education can be revised and reimagined, in the light of developments produced in the pandemic environment.
RMIT Placement Project
As part of the response to the impact of Covid-19, RMIT Social Work Field Education developed a series of internal placement projects for students in undergraduate and postgraduate programs. Students participating in these projects were supervised by RMIT Social Work academics and this was the first time such placement opportunities had been undertaken at RMIT. A focus of these remote placements was ensuring that student connections with industry partners was developed. Despite the placements being managed ‘in house’, our intention was to provide students with opportunities to engage directly with industry. While these projects were predominantly research-based, students built connections with social workers and legal professionals working in a range of organisations throughout Melbourne.
This book is the outcome of one of these projects. This project involved four Masters of Social Work students at RMIT and three academics. The key aim of the project was to understand how RMIT social work’s partner agencies had experienced, and responded to, the Covid-19 pandemic. This placement had two key aims. First, to conceptualise and manage the publication of this book, as an important contribution from agency partners around the impacts of Covid-19 upon their services, their staff and people who access their programs. Second, this project aimed to complete a scoping study, involving interviews with agency partners. These interviews sought to understand the challenges agency partners had experienced, the creative and innovative ways that agencies had responded to the Covid-19 lockdowns and other health and safety related measures, and to understand how placements were managed by agencies, in partnership with RMIT, through this time.
The student placements commenced in July 2021. These placements were intended to be completed face-to-face. It was envisaged that students would visit participating partner agencies, spending time within the agencies to interview agency staff and RMIT social work students on placement. Through ongoing communication and on-site visits, students would also liaise with agency partners, assisting partners to complete chapters for this book. Unfortunately, after four days of on-site orientation to the placement, the Victorian Government announced a sixth lockdown for Melbourne, which would continue until the end of October. This meant that students worked remotely for the remainder of the placement, and were required to organise remote interviews with agency representatives.
A key strength of the project was the student collaboration. Students met each week with the supervisory team, and also met individually with supervisors and placement liaisons. However, the support students provided to each other was critical to their success throughout the project, at a particularly difficult time. Students met as a group every day, to discuss their progress on assigned tasks, to workshop ideas, to debrief as a group following interviews and to provide moral support. Students shared chairing responsibilities for these meetings, and for group supervision meetings, developed agendas and shared minute taking responsibilities. The students and supervisory team worked on establishing group expectations, discussed group roles and group dynamics. This was another important element to the success of the project, as students were able to reflect on their own ways of working in groups, and to consider how their approach might work most effectively alongside other ways of participating in group work.
The Scoping Study: Interviews with partner agencies
With the assistance of supervisory academic staff, students managed this research project, which had received prior course work ethics approval from RMIT College Human Ethics Advisory Network. Students completed a review of the literature and identified key themes to focus the study. Students then worked on developing an interview schedule and conducted pilot interviews to test questions and organising the interviews. The students also created a participant information consent form, with feedback from academics. Concurrently, field education academics developed and issued a short questionnaire for agency partners to gauge interest in participating in the scoping study, and the Partnership with the Community book. Approximately half of RMIT social work’s partner agencies indicated an interest in these projects.
The students contacted partner agencies who had expressed interest in the project to organise interview times and seek consent from participants. Interviews were conducted and recorded through Microsoft Teams. Two students attended each of the interviews, with one student as lead interviewer and the other student present to provide support and ask additional follow-up questions where appropriate. This was intended to provide a support mechanism for students, and also to allow for peer feedback. Following each interview, the students debriefed online, with the student in the observer role providing feedback to the lead interviewer. This helped students to identify with their own strengths, and for possible areas for development to be highlighted. In addition, this enabled students to both give and receive feedback, with group supervision used to model feedback and discuss what good feedback should feel like, and what it should be aiming to achieve.
Using interview recordings, students also transcribed interview data, and conducted thematic analysis of this data. Students used mind maps to illustrate the key themes emerging in the interviews conducted with each organisation, and how these themes intersected. In each instance, students wrote an outline of the research study including rationale and aims, and methodology. Students then summarised the findings of each study, using key quotes to illustrate salient points made in these interviews, also including the mind maps of the respective interviews. These summaries were provided to each of the agencies, with the intention of providing each partner with something tangible to take from the interviews. In addition, students will work with academics with the intention of publishing a series of articles based on this research.
Partnerships with the Community
Working with the supervisory group, students developed the frame for the contributions made by agencies to this book. Agencies were asked to describe their work, the impacts of Covid-19, what innovations were adopted to respond to the various challenges presented by the pandemic, how placements were continued and what students did in their placement work. Students then liaised with placement agencies to complete drafts of these chapters, and complete consent forms relating to an intellectual property of the agency (such as images and logos).
This book highlights the value of partnerships between social work departments and human service agencies. This value can be understood in a number of ways, including the facilitation of quality placements for students during a period of crisis, and a commitment to ongoing industry experience in field education placements. The valuable contribution made by this book, is in hearing from agencies about their experiences of Covid-19, innovative adjustments to service delivery and how the partnership model with RMIT Social Work has helped sustain placements throughout this period. Contributions by representatives of human service agencies underscore the value of partnerships, and the innovations and adaptations, by agencies and university staff which have helped maintain service delivery and placements through crisis periods. Agencies also highlight the importance of an organisation-wide approach to supporting self-care practices for students and staff, and the value of flexible and empathetic leadership. Strong lines of communication between university and agencies, as well as within agencies, is also a common theme emerging across the contributions to this book. The value of off-site supervision, as well as the support provided by the university staff towards supervision provided by agencies is emphasised by a number of authors.
Each chapter in this book makes an interesting and important contribution to broader discussions in Social Work regarding service delivery and also industry placements throughout the pandemic. In chapter 2, O’Keeffe, Heales, Baskarathas, Thompson and Jerono highlight how the voices of human services agencies are yet to be fully heard in the academic research. As Windisch and Cunningham outline in chapter 3, field education in social work throughout 2020 and 2021 in Melbourne has experienced ‘a crisis within a crisis’. As academics working in field education, Windisch and Cunningham describe these challenges, and how agency partnerships have been a key element in responding to these challenges. Selba Gondoza-Luka writes about the use of off-site supervision to support students practicing online case work with Afri-Aus Care in chapter 4. In chapter 5, Melvi Saji describes how remote placements have sought to replicate the work students would do in a face-to-face setting. Norminda Forteza, author of chapter 6, highlights the wide range of projects completed by the 15 students on placement with Australian Filipino Community Services throughout the pandemic. This includes the Physical Exercise program, Art for Wellness program and Online Singing program, involving older members of the Filipino community in Melbourne. In chapter 7, Shelley Turner of Forensicare writes about using co-design and co-creation, highlighting examples such as the ‘Digital Bytes’ program. Trevor Skerry and Jane Bakos describe Sacred Heart Mission’s work with people experiencing homelessness in chapter 8, and the valuable project work completed by students throughout 2021. Chapter 9 features Christina Ryan and Caroline McAlister of Southeast Community Links, describing their response to the rapidly changing environment, and students’ contributions to the Community Wellbeing/Emergency Relief program.
In Chapter 10, Carmel Simpson, Maree Corbo and Chay Brown from Tangentyere Council in Alice Springs describe the ‘two-way learning’ placement model, that supports a coming together of Indigenous and mainstream knowledges. Chapter 11, by Evelyn Dowling and Kieran Hough from Victoria Arabic Social Services, describes student involvement in the Gambling Harm program. This included a student using their knowledge of computer games to create an online training module to support workers’ understanding of gambling mechanisms. In chapter 12, Ariel Couchman draws on student descriptions of placements conducted at Youth Law, while in chapter 13, Ginetta Mammarella describes the wrap around support provided to young people by Youth Projects, and student contributions to this work. Finally, Jessica Lee-Ack, of Workforce Innovation and Development Institute, describes the commitment to a supportive and inclusive organisational culture, which is seen as integral in supporting staff and placement student wellbeing throughout a challenging time.
This collection makes an excellent contribution to knowledge of how human service agencies have responded to the considerable difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. As each of these chapters highlight, the creativity, strength, knowledge and skill of the agencies, their staff, and the students on placement, is considerable. This has enabled agencies to continue providing extremely valuable support to the people that they work with, at a time when the inequalities present in Australian society have been exacerbated. This work also highlights the immensely valuable relationships that RMIT social work has with partner agencies. Partnerships have enabled placements to continue, with support provided by agencies, off-site supervisors and RMIT staff. Students, as emerging social workers, have had placement experiences with industry where they have learned key skills and knowledges, and have made important contributions to program delivered by agencies. Finally, we extend our thanks to Caroline Jerono, Emily Heales, Sobika Baskarathas and Scott Thompson, the students who undertook this project placement. Their professionalism and commitment to this project, and for modelling good practice as supportive colleagues and group members.