Patrick O’Keeffe, Emily Heales, Sobika Baskarathas, Scott Thompson and Caroline Jerono
This chapter outlines how universities, governing bodies and agencies adapted social work field placements in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout this period, social workers, including many social work students, have been at the frontline of the public health crisis supporting those in need (Craik 2020). This created increased demands on the sector (Craik 2020). University campuses across the world were closed and teaching transitioned to online platforms (Davis and Mirick 2021; de Jonge et al. 2020), while many agencies have had to close face-to-face services and adapt to online service delivery (Craik 2020, Crisp et al. 2021). Subsequently, the social work placements of many students around the world were terminated early, cancelled or postponed (Crocetto 2021; Davis and Mirick 2021; Archer-Kuhn et al. 2020; O’Rourke et al. 2020). As stated by Crisp et al. (2021, p.1840), this created a significant predicament for social work programs, and the industries reliant upon social work graduates to staff key positions:
When COVID-19 led to closures of university campuses and many placement providers were no longer in a position to host students for the practice learning components of their degrees, one option for social work education programmes was to cease some activities until they were once again possible. Potentially, this would prevent students graduating and not address the needs of employers and the community for a skilled workforce. The alternative was that social work education had to change to respond rapidly to the changing needs of our stakeholders, including students, placement agencies and communities.
In some instances, there was added stress for the sector in providing placements for students.
Regulatory bodies such as Social Work England, the Australian Association of Social Work and the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) in the United States sought to modify placement requirements, to enable placements to be completed remotely, in ways that eased pressure on placement providers and students (Beesley and Devonald 2020; Crisp et al. 2021). In Australia, for example, placement guidelines were modified to enable students to work remotely from home, to allow supervision to be conducted through online meetings, while reducing required hours from 500 to 400 (Morley and Clarke 2020; Crisp et al. 2021). This reflects similar adjustments made by other governing bodies, such as the CSWE, which reduced placement hours by 15% (Davis and Mirick 2021). In other countries, such as Northern Ireland, placements were terminated and students were passed, provided they could demonstrate key competencies, to enable a quick transition to the workforce (O’Rourke et al. 2020).
However, in many countries agencies remained unable to provide student placements, based on a need to concentrate on their core activities in response to unfolding social, health and economic crises (Crisp et al., 2021). As a result, university departments responded by developing innovative placement models to address the shortfall in the number of placements on offer (Crisp et al. 2021). This involved placements provided within universities, administered by faculty staff or in collaboration with faculty staff and external partners (Zuchowski et al. 2021; Jeffries et al. 2021; Archer-Kuhn et al. 2020; Morley and Clarke 2020; Crocetto 2021; Mitchell et al. 2021), and the development of virtual placements which enabled students to complete placements with agencies (Drolet et al. 2021; Csoba and Debiel 2020). The crises caused by the pandemic presented the sector with the opportunity to innovate and provide new opportunities, to test new ways of working and provide learning for future placements (Davey et al. 2021; Zuchowski et al. 2021; Jeffries et al. 2021).
Through a scoping study of literature multiple articles were produced from a search using google scholar and informit. Certain articles did not meet the relevant criteria for the literature we were interested to explore on student placement during the pandemic. We used key search terms “social work”, “pandemic” and “student placement” when conducting searches. The search included global social work placement from 2020 to 2021 looking at the impacts on students, universities, and partner agencies. We were able to identify three major themes: challenges for students, staff and agencies, innovations developed by social work departments, students and agency partnerships throughout the pandemic, and the importance of agency partnership.
Challenges experienced by students, agencies and faculty staff
Students struggled with personal and practical issues relating to online placements throughout the pandemic as virtual placements have become the norm. Reflections from students globally and from various institutes have reported that students found the initial weeks of their online field education to be particularly stressful (Davis & Mirick, 2021; Sarbu and Unwin 2020; Newberry & Macdonald, 2021; Davey et al., 2021). This experience is a result of numerous difficulties experienced through completing placements online, such as lack of boundaries separating placement work and home life, loss of connection to social networks (de Jonge et al. 2020) and physical parameters (Newberry & Macdonald, 2021). For some students, insufficient information concerning the direction of their placements was a source of stress and anxiety (Davey et al., 2021). Students identified practical barriers such as motivation issues, distractions in the home environment, such as family and children, and feelings of isolation (Zuchowski et al. 2021). For many students, the remote working in the context of the uncertainties created by the pandemic contributed to experiences of isolation while completing the placement online (Davey et al. 2021). In the example highlighted by Davey et al. (2021), students felt isolated working from home, the early weeks of their placement seemed directionless and with little communication which left them feeling demotivated and stressed (Davey et al., 2021).
The switch to online provision of services highlighted and reinforced economic and digital inequalities (de Jonge et al. 2020). Social work agencies often work with vulnerable and marginalised communities (Craik, 2020), while many social work students also experience economic disadvantage and lack access to necessary technology to connect with online platforms (Davis & Mirick, 2021; Fronek et al. 2021). The Covid-19 pandemic accentuated the financial disadvantage experienced by many students in numerous ways, with the limited capacity to connect with virtual placements an example (Fronek et al. 2021).
Students whose placements were ended early were disappointed at not being able to complete a face-to-face placement, and for the lost relationships developed through placements which were ended suddenly (Davey et al. 2021; Mitchell et al. 2021; Micsky 2021). An added challenge of navigating the virtual sphere is maintaining student and service user confidentiality, and in some cases, developing processes for protecting confidentiality and personal information (Morris et al., 2020; Mitchell et al. 2021). In one example described by Morris et al (2020, p.1133), a participant’s therapist asked a student to share their phone conversations with the participant. In this case, a consent form was developed to seek consent from the participant for this information to be shared, and then discussed with the therapist (Morris et al. 2020, p.1133). Similar concerns have been raised regarding students’ use of personal phones and devices to conduct conversations and access confidential data and information. As Mitchell et al. (2021) describe in relation to a clinical setting, students completing remote placements had limited access to key information due to privacy and security concerns. Mitchell et al. (2021) highlight how this created the need for social work academics to develop responses, such as a “patient-less” clinical experience, which would provide students with the opportunity to develop key skills and competencies (Mitchell et al. 2021, p.2).
During the pandemic field education staff undertook additional responsibilities, which resulted in additional time commitments than traditional placements required (Zuchowski et al., 2021). Field educators supported students as they struggled with projects which required creating new knowledge rather than building upon pre-existing knowledge (Zuchowski et al., 2021). They were able to provide support by facilitating critical reflection as students initially felt that remote placements were not ‘real’ placements (Zuchowski et al., 2021). Hence, educators played a key role in supporting students throughout placements as did agencies. A further limitation in some articles could be the nature of the relationship between students and universities are likely to influence responses collected through research.
While a significant body of research has examined students’ and social work educators’ insights of field education during the pandemic (Mitchell et al. 2021; Crocetto 2021; Drolet et al. 2021; Morley and Clarke 2020; Archer-Kuhn et al. 2020; Jeffries et al. 2021), there has been little research from agency perspectives.
Development of innovative placement models and projects
Placements that were not able to proceed had a flow on effect for students and the social work departments as it would prevent students from graduating (Crisp et al., 2021). Furthermore, it would have consequences for the human services sector as an influx of employees were desperately needed to deal with the impact of the pandemic (Crisp et al., 2021).
The COVID-19 pandemic compelled social work programs and agencies to develop creative responses to ensure that placements could still continue, despite remote working and agency closures (Mclaughlin et al. 2020). These innovations are demonstrated in several unique placements and teaching innovations in Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, Chile, the United States and Hungary (Mclaughlin et al 2020). As Csoba and Debiel (2020, p.1095) describe, the creativity demanded by the cessation of familiar ways of working opened a “digital gate” for social work education. However, more than rapidly developing technological competency and enabling remote working, the pandemic caused social work departments to rethink standard partnership models.
In many cases, social work departments developed models which resulted in students engaging in online learning which allowed for simulation of key social work skills and competencies (Jeffries et al. 2021; Mitchell et al. 2021; Crocetto 2021). These examples were frequently offered to students in instances where placements had been terminated early, or where placements were not able to proceed. These models necessitated the development of teaching resources by faculty staff, who provided training and support to students through simulation and role play. In other instances, self-directed practicum placements were offered, which combined online teaching units with volunteer hours, where students gained direct practice experience (Asher-Kuhn et al. 2020; Crisp et al. 2021).
For example, the University of Tasmania created a placement with the Red Cross based on 24 first and 24 second placement students making phone calls to people who were disconnected and isolated during initial stages of the first COVID 19 lockdown (Crisp et al., 2021). These 48 students made around 6000 calls to individuals who required food, medical resources, psycho-social supports, and a person to chat with, and as a result these students played a vital role in aiding vulnerable people at a crucial time, thus gaining a valuable and rewarding placement experience in line with a Social Work ethos (Crisp et al., 2021). This opportunity would not have arisen in pre-covid times and showed the ability of social work departments within universities to have the ability to be able to adapt (Mclaughlin et al., 2020).
Other innovative placements involved students completing research projects focusing on contemporary issues in social and environmental justice (Mclaughlin et al., 2020), and international activist projects conducted via zoom, which demonstrated how using online space could bring down geographic boundaries within social work practice (Crisp et al., 2021). In Australian universities such as the Queensland University of Technology (Brisbane) and James Cook University (Townsville), despite very few Covid cases relative to other parts of Australia and in other countries and limited restrictions being applied, research placements conducted ‘in-house’ were adopted as a key response to the broader challenges created by the pandemic (Morley and Clarke 2020). The James Cook University Social Work department created the innovative ‘Community Connectors Project’, where 20 social work students completed placements contributing to research projects (Davey et al. 2021; Zuchowski et al. 2021). Similarly, Morely and Clarke (2020) highlighted the use of research placements, administered by academic staff, to support student learning. In an Australian context, the challenges for social work departments in securing placements has caused a number of academics to reflect on the value of simulation, remote working and university-administered research placements as providing a sustainable model for field education (Jeffries et al. 2021; Zuchowski et al. 2021).
In addition to placements delivered by social work academics, student-directed and student led placements, drawing on an action learning model, were employed in placements offered to students (Morris et al. 2020). As Morris et al. (2020) describe, graduate students from Stoney Brook University in the United States created a project called GiftsofGab.org to address two main goals during their field placement. First was to address the negative effects of social isolation and loneliness of older people, which was exacerbated due to the pandemic. This project aimed “to respond to the pressing issue of isolation and loneliness among older adults due to the enactment of mandated stay-at-home orders” (Morris 2021, p.1128). Essentially, this project was “a volunteer, call-based companion coordination project that connects social work students with those in need of social interaction” (Morris 2020, p.1128). A second aim of the project was to provide displaced social work students at Stoney Brook the opportunity to complete their required field placement hours. This project provided social support, addressing the feeling of depression and isolation, while allowing participants space tell their stories to someone. GiftofGab.org provided the students with experience in community-based field work within the model of action learning field education (Morris et al. 2020).
Collaboration between academic staff within faculties, with other faculties, between students and also among universities and external partners was described as a critical factor in the success of the innovations highlighted in this research (Asher-Kuhn et al. 2020; Zuchowski et al. 2021; De Fries et al. 2021; Drolet et al. 2021). However, while the innovations discussed here offer potential opportunities for advancing field education, it should be noted that the resourcing required to support academic staff to deliver these models would require attention by universities (Crisp et al. 2021). In many instances, staff experienced a high degree of stress and exhaustion (Asher-Kuhn et al. 2020; Fargion et al. 2020), suggesting that while in-house placement models may ensure greater sustainability in terms of placement availability, the potential staff burnout in response to workload pressure may itself undermine sustainability.
Importance of Partnership
For many universities, partnerships involving universities, government and community-based agencies have been vital in providing quality placements for social work students (Jaquiery et al. 2021; De Fries et al. 2021; O’Rourke et al. 2020; Egan 2018). The commitment of all partners to these relationships have helped ensure that there are placement opportunities for students. Crisp et al. (2021) suggest that for many social work departments, the Covid-19 pandemic underlined the need to reduce reliance on external partners for agencies, while other studies have suggested the provision of placements by university departments represents a more sustainable placement model (Zuchowski et al. 2021; Asher-Kuhn et al. 2020). However, a number of studies reflecting on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic have highlighted the value of partnerships between universities and social work industry partners for the continuation of student placements throughout the pandemic (De Fries et al., 2021; Beesley and Devonald 2020; Drolet et al., 2021; Jaquiery et al., 2020, Sarbu & Unwin, 2021).
Community based agencies in New Zealand continued to take on the responsibility of field education throughout the pandemic as they saw value in having students at their agencies and assisting the next wave of social workers in their learning experience (Jaquiery et al. 2020). Jacquiery et al. (2020, p.69) noted “The importance of relying on strong professional relationships during crises”, which contributed to the flexibility of placements during this time, with some transitioning online and others having more of a project focus (Jaquiery et al., 2020). As Jaquiery et al. (2020, p.66) state, the partners “willingness to provide placements for students during this difficult time is significant, as they continued to provide a service for which there is no financial gain or recompense”. This relationship was not only beneficial for the students; the agencies also benefited from having students contributing to the agencies’ work. Placement students helped fill gaps left by staff members who had to take leave as a result of isolation requirements (Sarbu & Unwin, 2021).
Transforming the Field Education Landscape (TFEL) was formed in 2019 as collaboration between social work educators and practice agencies in Canada to work towards addressing the challenges of field education (Drolet, 2021). As a result of safety concerns for students, staff and faculty during the pandemic, TFEL had to shift to a remote model which created new and innovative ways for the partners to collaborate. During this time, they were able to host a virtual field education summit. The online delivery of the summit meant 600 people were able to attend, as attendance was not restricted by the size of the venue (Drolet et al. 2021, p.4). One student involved in the TFEL partnership reflected on the expansion of their social work skillset, as the partnership gave them the opportunity to connect and be mentored by professors across multiple universities in Canada (Drolet et al. 2021, pp.6-7). The reach of the TFEL network only grew due to the flexibility and adaptations that resulted from the global impact of Covid 19 (Drolet et al., 2021).
Social work field education in Pacific Northwest America had to transition to a fully remote placement delivery as a result of the pandemic. The shift to a virtual placement in response to the pandemic “relied on the ability of field education programs to work in partnership with community agencies to imagine and operationalise new models of teaching and learning” (De Fries et al., 2021, p.2). These new models saw the social work agencies provide flexibility in the way they virtually onboarded placement students and the remote supervision they provided. The pandemic highlighted the critical need for social workers to assist the most vulnerable populations especially during these times. As a result, innovative methods of field education delivery were created between universities and partner agencies, to ensure field education continued during the pandemic.
In this literature review we identified three major themes in relation to social work field education during the Covid-19 pandemic: challenges experienced by students, faculty staff and agencies, the development of innovative models and placement types, and importance of partnerships with external agencies, universities and government. While many of the experiences across different countries were similar, such as the cancellation or early termination of placements, the stress and uncertainty experienced by students and university staff as they responded to the crisis, and the need to develop creative responses to these challenges, the impact of Covid-19 has been uneven throughout the world, and within countries. In addition, the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated existing inequalities in education, between countries and among student populations. For example, in Australia the pandemic has had different effects even within Australia, each state had different restrictions, as certain states within Australia such as WA (Western Australia), QLD and Tasmania have had relatively minimal exposure to the COVID-19 virus compared to Victoria and New South Wales who have had prolonged lockdowns. The difference in restrictions and the number of lockdowns highlight the different experiences. For example, some articles identified remote placements as those with no direct link to industry which is very different to the central place industry played in helping to maintain placements throughout the pandemic, as described in other articles. This emphasises the importance of understanding the role of partnerships in covid placements as explored throughout this book.
This chapter draws together a selection of the extensive literature which has been developed by social work academics in relation to field education responses to the pandemic. However, despite some exceptions (Csoba and Debiel 2020; Davis and Mirick 2021; Fargion et al. 2020), the majority of these studies involve social work academics reflecting on and analysing their responses to placement cancellations and terminations. This is understandable, and is very valuable research which shares and reflects on the immediate actions adopted by academics in a rapidly changing environment. As numerous authors have also stated, the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic created the opportunity to test new models and approaches, which may shape the delivery of social work field placements into the future. However, it is also worth questioning the balance of these studies, and emphasising the caution that needs to be exercised when considering the extent to which this research may be used to redefine social work field placements. This book highlights the placements undertaken by RMIT partners during 2020 and 2021 and adds to the knowledge base in relation to challenges experienced by students, academic staff and external agencies, the opportunities for innovation and creativity in relation to placements, and the important role of partnering.