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Advice on being a social work student during a pandemic

Leeanne Olivant, a placement coordinator on the University of Huddersfield's social work course and third-year student Natalie Stuart share their learning...

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

Published by Professional Social Work magazine

The Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on the entire world, with health and social care professionals playing an integral role throughout.

Social workers have had to quickly adapt their practice to respond to unprecedented situations in a time of health, social and economic crises. Many social workers have been working through anxiety and worry for their own health as well as the health, safety, and wellbeing of service users as a direct result of Covid-19 and the changes in practice required to reduce risk of infection.

As with the disruption caused to social work practice, social work education has also been impacted upon, with teaching moving online and placements being delayed or undertaken virtually. This has had a bearing on students’ learning experiences and mental health, with worries ranging from missing out on direct learning opportunities to feeling unprepared for practice.

Like other higher education institutions, the University of Huddersfield's social work programme had never experienced a situation like this before and therefore had to do a signficant amount of work to quickly convert our teaching and support strategies to move online to try and curb the disturbance the pandemic and lockdown would have on student learning.

We quickly adapted to online lectures, seminars, and tutorials, but also had to make arrangements for practice placements, which could not so easily be moved online. Placements rely on the availability of practice educators and social work teams to provide in-placement teaching, support and assessment of students.

Moving placements to home working and ensuring compliance with the government lockdown guidance, while also maintaining meaningful learning opportunities, would require significant time and attention. However, in the early days of Covid the individuals, teams and agencies who support student placements were justifiably focusing on adapting their own practice and prioritising service users.

The social work team at the university worked closely with our partners, particularly with the practice educator consultants from local authorities within our teaching partnership, coming together as a placement team to develop new ways of working. This included developing a tool which identified new learning opportunities and tracked the tasks against the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) to ensure students could continue to meet their learning needs, despite not initially being able to undertake direct work or spend time in offices with their social work teams.

After some significant hard work , social work placements were able to restart. While students were reassured of the learning opportunities available to them, there have been anxieties over the past 12 months regarding placements, particularly as so much has changed.

Unlike ever before, students have spent the majority, if not all, of their placements working from home. Visits, supervisions, team meetings and placement meetings have been undertaken virtually, with many students never meeting with practice educators or service users in person.

Addressing students’ anxieties, while also moving to working from home, teaching online, organising placements virtually and rearranging a whole cohort of student placements was a significant amount of work. The undue pressure that social workers and agencies were under also meant a lot of the usual placement providers were unable to offer places to our students.

After much work, in particular with the practice educator consultants within Kirklees and Calderdale council, as well as key colleagues in the NHS and other agencies, sufficient placement opportunities have been secured, with some brilliant learning opportunities emerging.

These placement opportunities were developed in such a way as to ensure the students, professionals and service users were safe from transmission of Covid, while also following government guidelines, providing sufficient opportunities to meet the PCF at each level of study and also allow them to continue with learning safely at University. Despite this work, understandably students and practice educators alike remained concerned about learning and completing placements online.

Natalie Stuart: The student's perspective

My social work course was one of the first of its kind in the country. It is a four-year integrated masters, with a 70-day placement in year 3 and a 100-day placement in year 4. The first two years were spent learning about the meaning of social work, from building our communication skills to the theories and laws behind practice.

Just as I was about to start my first social work placement, which I had been extremely excited about, the way social work was delivered shifted due to the Covid pandemic. It was a worrying time for everyone, with a lot of uncertainty about what was going on in the world. In terms of placement worries, I had the usual worries of being nervous about interacting with service users, whether I would fit well into the team and whether I would enjoy my placement experience. I then had the additional worries brought about by the pandemic, including would I get enough contact time to meet the PCF? What if I catch the virus? Or will I get vaccinated?

I was nervous about having my placement agreement meeting as this set out how my placement was anticipated to work in a Covid world. I felt lucky that all the professionals involved made me feel at ease and understood my worries. So far, my placement has been a mix of hybrid working, from virtual contact to being in the office, whereas pre-pandemic there would have been a primary focus on face-to-face visits and office work. I have found the flexibility of the working pattern to be extremely advantageous, including saving travel time between visits to exploring more efficient ways to communicate with service users.

I believe that the effects of Covid-19 to be substantial for the social work field from students to service users. I think that these necessary adaptations will have a sustained effect on the way social work professionals interact with service users for years to come. My advice for social work students who are approaching other placements is to be dynamic and innovative with how they work. Progressive thinking will enable you to meet the needs of service users in the most efficient way.

Social work education going forward

Social workers, university staff and students alike have had to adapt to working and learning online and from home. While lockdown restrictions have eased and there have been movements back to the office for some, social workers (like many professionals) are unlikely to go back to working styes pre-lockdown. They will continue to work from home, with some virtual visits, meetings etc. The future of the pandemic and it’s impact on the world is also unknown, therefore moving placements back to offices and in person visits is being done cautiously, with no guarantee that another local or national lockdown may happen again.

With the future looking more virtual for both academic and placement learning, it seems like an appropriate time to reflect on how people are feeling about online learning and look to share experiences and best practice for those joining university in the coming years. Similarly, it is important that we prepare the next cohort of students to start placement and the current students who will shortly be qualifying and continuing to learn - in England during the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment.

We sent out a short questionnaire based on online learning within social work, to our first and second placement students, alongside practice educators.

The top three concerns around online learning and placements related to:

  1. Being away from others - Participants reported feeling alone, or expressed worries about not getting quick responses from others. There were also anxieties around contacting people or not knowing who to contact, and loss of classroom environment. This also included general concerns around reduced social interaction and fewer opportunities for sharing experiences.
  2. Lack of experience - Respondants worried that students this year will not have the same experience as previous or future students. A common theme was not being confident working with service users face-to-face, not being able to see service users’ environments and missing out on learning opportunities.
  3. IT issues - This was felt to be an issue in the classroom and on placement. A number commented that they were strugging to find information and that getting to know new systems and ways of working was challenging.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the biggest concern raised was the worry about not getting a full learning experience.

Natalie says: “As a first placement student, I have had plenty of opportunities to shadow different teams and work with a host of service users in a multitude of ways. For reference, I am around mid-point of my placement and I feel confident I am meeting the PCF domains already. My advice to students would be don’t be scared to reach out and ask for opportunities. If you don’t get a response follow it up, social workers are always busy and they may have just got side-tracked and forgot to reply to your email."

This was similar advice to that given by respondents who recommended 'putting yourself out there’ and asking questions.

When asked about frequency of taking breaks most people agreed that during a full day of learning or working online you should take regular breaks - at least every hour. Despite this, the majority of students and practice educators voiced that they only take a lunch break and comfort breaks when needed.

As a university and across the teaching partnership we recognised that this was something we needed to reflect on and look at ways we can support both students and practice educators to take regular breaks and promote their wellbeing.

Natalie says: “Before my placement started we were told not to fall into the bad habit of not taking lunch breaks and that it’s okay to go for a walk during the working day as we’re not expected to sit at a laptop 9-5. Admittedly there have been times where I haven’t taken breaks because I’ve been extremely busy or very interested in the work that I was doing. However, like the respondents to the questionnaire, I would recommend taking regular breaks, as this can often increase productivity and self-care is extremely important, especially within social work. Taking a short walk helps me to reflect on the work I’ve done that day and it is a great opportunity to think about innovative ways to progress”.

Due to the high demands of being a social worker and student social worker, organisation is a key element of the job. Over half of respondents voiced that they use diaries and online calendars to help organise their time.

Natalie says: “Throughout placement I have kept a log of everything that I have planned in my dairy. Whether this is what time I start/finish placement, any training or any questions I wish to raise. This has helped me tremendously when completing my placement related university work. I would recommend all students to do the same."

Respondents of the survey suggested several tips for social work students learning online and going on placement to help stay motivated and engaged. These include moving away from distractions, for example your personal phone, having your camera on during teaching and meetings, engaging in online discussions and asking questions during lectures or training. Following these tips will likely increase the time you are meaningfully engaging in your placement work, especially when working from home and in a virtual manner.

Despite the concerns and worries, a lot of advantages to learning online were also highlighted:

  1. Saves time - No commute to placement/university and looking for parking spaces saves time allowing to generally fit more into the day. People are also more readily available, so arranging meetings and such is easier.
  2. Home environment - Feel comfortable in your own environment so can be more relaxed in new situations, being at home means you’re available to manage any situations with home/children/ family.
  3. Better work-life balance - More time and space for self-care and reflection.

In general, students have reported to be enjoying their placements, having plentiful learning opportunities and developing essential social work skills, knowledge and values. However, they do acknowledge ongoing apprehension about moving into being qualified workers having had reduced face-to-face work, home visits and regular opportunities for informal interactions within offices and other professional spaces.

Students have learnt a lot this year and from their experiences have come up with some top tips for future students who may be approaching online learning for the first time, or preparing to start a placement in a more virtual environment.

Tips for online learning 

  1. Take care of yourself - Practice self-care and take regular breaksBe organised - Ensure you know what needs to be done when and try to get work done in advance (where possible) to avoid cramming  
  2. Stay positive - You can and will complete your work, positively reaffirming this to yourself will likely help you stay focused whilst boosting your mood 
  3. Don’t be scared to ask for help - If you’re unsure make sure you ask questions, others will likely be unsure too! There is no such thing as a ‘stupid question
  4. Create a comfortable learning environment - Try and find a quiet workplace, that is free of distractions (where possible)