Work Setting: School
Working in a school setting is something of a dream environment for many of us school social workers. We get to work with educators, families, and students, as well as community agencies and business partners. It is often the best of both worlds of micro and macro social work. Until a pandemic emerges. Suddenly, the whole school becomes your client-not just the at-risk student or the homeless family, but the affluent family that has experienced three losses due to Covid-19 and the teachers who are tearfully breaking down, concerned about their own health and safety, and stressed over the increased workload.
One of the social worker’s essential job tasks is to locate, assess, and attempt to remove any barriers that may be preventing a student from achieving academic success. Barriers that were once limited to a small percentage of the school population have grown to include most of the school population. Traditional school-age challenges such as parent divorce or peer relationships now swell to include internet accessibility, caregiver job loss, family illness, lack of appropriate devices, family stress, housing, lack of social outlets and increased anxiety and depression. Barriers abound! School staff are often concerned with student well-being, both physically and emotionally. With limited access to students via online platforms, assessment is often very difficult. The question, “how are you really doing?” leads to awkward silences, averted gazes or curt responses. For those students who are in the school building, remaining six feet apart and wearing a mask that covers half of your face doesn’t exactly generate a feeling of trust or connection. And parents? Well, they are struggling to keep their own heads above water, let alone help their students with calculus, explaining the Declaration of Independence or long O sounds. This has the unfortunate effect of sometimes making teachers feel that parents are apathetic and unengaged. So, what do we do? What has worked? What doesn’t work?
It’s all a work in progress. Last week, my school system announced a decision to switch to full-remote learning for all students for another week. Things are changing on a weekly and sometimes daily basis in terms of new policies, strategies, and procedures. The one constant has been the need for a caring, compassionate person, both at staff meetings and in parent conversations. In addition to increased mental health referrals, home visits and economic aid distributions, I have spent most of my time validating the feelings and affirming the strengths of the people I am in contact with. Nobody needs a reminder that things appear to be crumbling around us, but we do need a reminder that we are capable of overcoming. No matter how many degrees, professional licenses, or continuing education credits we earn, the basics remain the same. Meet people where they are. Listen when people talk. Be solution oriented. Inspire if possible, but mostly, just be there. Be present. Not just for clients or coworkers, but for yourself too.