Assessing the Support and Aid to Families Electronically program: An online social work practicum delivering support to families remotely
In response to the COVID pandemic, schools from elementary to higher education suddenly shifted to remote learning. Distance learning, balancing work and childcare, financial stress and health concerns placed a heavy burden on parents and caregivers. Close to 60% of parents in the first wave of COVID reported symptoms of depression and one third reported moderate to severe anxiety (Gonzalez s behaviours and mood were negatively impacted by the pandemic, and the educational system was already struggling to equitably support the increasingly complex mental health needs of students (Lee, 2020; People for Education 2019).
In a parallel process, COVID required that social work education in universities shift to online learning. Practicum field placements, an essential educational requirement of social work education through which students gain practice skills while being supervised by professional social workers in the field, also suddenly shifted to remote learning. Many practicum placements were unable to accommodate students while managing the momentous resource demands accompanying this switch. Moreover, COVID had compounded existing difficulties securing sufficient practicum opportunities, as organizations were already stretched past capacity.
To respond to these challenges, the School of Social Work, King’s University College at Western (King’s) and the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB) partnered to develop an innovative program to address family stress and provide stable remote practicum placements for social work students. The Support and Aid to Families Electronically (SAFE) pilot program is designed to provide free and immediate online counselling for parents/caregivers of students from kindergarten to grade 8 through a secure video platform, while providing a remote practicum for eight King’s social work students.
This exploratory mixed methods research study has two objectives: 1) to understand the impact of SAFE for three groups of key stakeholders, families, social work students, and the referring school board, and 2) to understand the feasibility of continuing or expanding this program. While COVID was the impetus for SAFE, the underlying factors including stretched resources in schools and the community, increasingly complex mental health needs, family stress, and limited practicum opportunities were present prior and will continue in the foreseeable future. Moreover, the shift toward online support creates exciting opportunities to partner and support rural and remote school communities with limited resources or access to a university social work program. This research advances knowledge on the delivery of mental health services to families, on the delivery of mental health services remotely, on partnerships between elementary and higher education, as well as knowledge on remote social work education.
This research has the potential to facilitate service provision across remote and rural communities while offering expanded educational opportunities for social work students beyond their immediate geographic location. This research has potential to benefit multiple levels of education as well as across child and family mental health services. This research will be used by King’s to understand the impact and feasibility of continuing or expanding this pilot program, by the TVDSB to understand the impact and feasibility of continuing this partnership, by additional school boards to understand the impact and feasibility of partnering with King’s in expanding SAFE, by other schools of social work to consider the implications of remote practicums for their students, and by families to understand the potential impact of involvement in a program like SAFE.