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School Social Work in the Time of COVID-19: When Human-Centered Work Moved Online

July 2020

“Traditionally, the client has been the student, and sometimes a student and teacher together. During school closures, the student’s parents or other adult caregivers have become important additional clients.”

This spring, while the nation tried to control the spread of the new coronavirus, school buildings were closed, and at least 55 million K–12 students were expected to learn from home. For many of them, this shift threatened to tear a hole in an important safety net. Especially for children living in poverty or whose families are experiencing other forms of distress, school is where, in addition to learning, they eat, play, and receive needed behavioral and mental health supports. Even before the pandemic, one in six school-aged children had a mental health condition. Now, experts warn, those numbers are likely rising — making students’ school-related safety net all the more important. A key part of that net as it relates to student well-being are school social workers, whose professional worlds are quickly and dramatically shifting as they must learn how to support students in a virtual context.

Here in the REL West region, where a number of our projects focus on student well-being, many of the school and district leaders with whom we work are coordinating new responses to meet the expanding emotional needs of their students. As they do so, we’re learning how some school social workers are figuring out which services are needed and how they can be delivered online. REL West’s Senior Researcher BethAnn Berliner, who leads cross-sector student support projects, recently interviewed San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) school social workers Michelle Fortunado-Kewin and Jordan Shafer to find how they and their colleagues are managing their professional responsibilities in this period of school closure, when they and their clients are unable to meet in person. What they had to say may resonate and prompt new ideas for social workers and other support providers, as well as for teachers, in districts across the REL West region and beyond.

Longstanding Concerns Continue While New Ones Arise

The pandemic is hitting already-vulnerable families and their children especially hard — those, for example, who had already been living paycheck to paycheck or who had been dealing with food or housing insecurity. The economic fallout of shelter-at-home policies has exacerbated these problems for many families. At the same time, school social workers are seeing new areas of concern for students, caused by both fear of the coronavirus and the resulting school closures. Students of all ages and from all backgrounds are reporting feelings of social isolation, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and anxiety. They’re missing the routine of going to school and being with friends, and they’re also picking up on family stress. Especially worrisome are those students for whom being at home isn’t always safe. During videocalls with students, some school social workers have observed, for example, young children home alone.

For students with other family members at home, social workers have noted another complexity, which is that some students don’t have the privacy that would allow them to confide their personal worries to a social worker, either online or by telephone. During normal times, said Fortunado-Kewin, school social workers know what’s happening because students tell them in conversations at school. Reflecting on this issue, she asked, “How do we assess for safety in a household if a kid can’t say certain things because someone else is in the room?” In response to this kind of situation, SFUSD school social workers are reaching out to students more regularly and persistently, online or by phone, searching for a time when the student might feel more free to talk openly about any personal issues. Sometimes, the social workers also join in teachers’ online lessons to observe and assess how students are engaging. If they see something of serious concern about a student’s well-being, social workers can tap community resources, including crisis-intervention staff who can go to the home if needed.

Rethinking Their Role

Before school buildings closed, the work of school social workers generally took one of two forms: planful approaches to supporting individual students and in-the-moment interactions with students — and sometimes their teachers — as needed. In the normal course of school-based work, scheduled interactions with students might include providing individual or group mental health or behavior therapy or counseling; conducting classroom or other observations of individual and, sometimes, groups of students; and consultation with teachers, parents, and administrators — all with the intent of addressing issues that interfere with students’ learning and social interactions at school. In addition to this planned work, however, social workers intentionally maintain open, or unplanned, time during their day so they’re available to respond on-the-fly to any situations that call for conflict resolution or other immediate intervention, in the classroom or anywhere else on school grounds. Adapting this type of highly relational work to an online format is a big and ongoing shift.

In this new context, school social workers are learning by doing and are having to rethink their roles. Some of their in-the-moment work simply cannot be done at a distance. “So much of my work was just being present with students,” said Shafer. For her and her colleagues, being present includes being available to serve as a student’s “co-regulator,” a role in which they provide the warm and responsive real-time support, coaching, and modeling that children need in order to understand and productively express feelings and behaviors. Although, as Shafer noted, social workers can’t be present the same way when connecting with students online, that need doesn’t go away. Social workers are still engaged in relational work by observing how students engage in virtual learning activities and social interactions, but providing in-the-moment supports online is more challenging and they instead follow up with one-on-one supports as needed.

Meanwhile, much of the planned work that school social workers do normally — personal counseling, case management, and linking students and families to district and community resources — continues through telephone calls, text messages, and video meet-ups. Such interactions just have a different kind of human touch than speaking in person.

Another shift for SFUSD social workers is that they’re now conducting wellness checks, not just for those students already part of their caseload, but for all students. The intent is to find out if students’ basic needs are being met and, if needed, to ensure they’re receiving necessary services. Because this added responsibility has naturally increased the volume of their work, school social workers are scheduling regular and more frequent online check-ins with those students already on their caseloads to ensure continuity of support since, for many of them, their learning and social-emotional needs have multiplied.

Rethinking Relationships with Parents/Caregivers

School social workers have also had to reassess who their clients are. Traditionally, the client has been the student, and sometimes a student and teacher together. During school closures, the student’s parents or other adult caregivers have become important additional clients.

School social workers have partnered with teachers to help with family outreach in order to strengthen ties with parents and address sensitive student well-being concerns.

SFUSD social workers have also seen an uptick in requests from parents for advice about how to address their children’s disruptive or regressive behaviors, resistance to new homeschooling routines, or general reluctance to engage in learning. With parents now expected to act as part-time teachers for younger children and supervisors of home-based learning for older children, their role as educators overlaps with their general parenting roles, creating new family dynamics and, in many cases, conflicts. Under normal conditions, school social workers have clear boundaries about not giving parenting advice; instead, they advise parents primarily on how to support their child’s learning and social interactions at school. Some school social workers are now finding themselves coaching parents to better manage children’s behaviors that are interfering with learning.

Other Ways to Show Caring

SFUSD social workers have also found some creative ways to stay in touch with students and to show that they care about them. With younger students, they use playful online activities — such as show-and-tell sessions, scavenger hunts, and readalouds — to prompt conversations that focus on emotional well-being and help build students’ confidence in using their social-emotional skills. Social workers are also making “guest appearances” in teachers’ online lessons to support students’ academic and social engagement. As needed, they also provide teachers with feedback to help them better monitor online classroom dynamics and individual student progress. Social workers may sometimes watch YouTube music and dance videos together with older students as a way to ease into supportive relationships that can develop into check-ins about recognizing, understanding, and dealing with feelings. These are some of the ways “we’re getting a temperature read” on how students are coping, explained Fortunado-Kewin.

Staying Hopeful

“School social workers are agile and have a strengths-based orientation, and all of that is coming into play as we figure out next steps,” reflected Shafer. “We meet students where they’re at, and they’re stepping up with resilience and connecting with us.” She and Fortunado-Kewin remain confident that if students and their families are well supported by caring educators and school staff who attend to their well-being during this uncertain time, students will emerge as strong and effective learners.

To learn about REL West’s work that focuses on student well-being, please visit the following:

This blog is part of our series on how student support providers are adapting their services in light of school building closures and social distancing measures. Read the first blog in this series on Reaching, Teaching, and Empowering Families During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences funds a network of 10 Regional Educational Laboratories (RELs). Each REL serves a designated region of the country and works with educators and policymakers to support a more evidence-based education system. In response to COVID-19, the RELs have collaborated to produce a series of evidence-based resources and guidance about teaching and learning in a remote environment, as well as other considerations brought by the pandemic. To access these resources, visit https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/edlabs/projects/covid-19. This blog was prepared for the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0012 by Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) West at WestEd. The content of the publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.