Back to School: Social Workers Help Students, Families, Teachers Adjust After COVID

person pulls on rope while standing in a pile of office equipment and discarded face masks

By Leigh Glenn

On March 13, 2020, Kashera Guy Robinson, MSW, LCSW, a social worker in Clayton County Public Schools, southeast of Atlanta, was told to get her things; schools were closing. Everyone expected to return soon.

The annual spring conference that the School Social Workers Association of Georgia had planned for the following week was shelved. It was not until early summer that Robinson returned to her office, which was just as she had left it, to clean and unplug her office refrigerator.

At the time of dismissal because of the looming pandemic, only a few of the staff of 31 social workers in her district had a list of students they could follow up with to see how they were doing. At the beginning of the shutdowns, Clayton had approximately 54,000 students enrolled. Compared with neighboring districts, Clayton tends to have more students of African American, Asian American and Latin American descent than white. This often translates into more transience tied to families’ economic circumstances.

As schools fully reopen, Robinson expects “a Pandora’s box.” Among questions about how to help students and teachers pick up the pieces, there are thornier ones: What of the students who were in abusive situations before COVID and who’ve been home for a year-plus? How much abuse has gone unnoticed because students and teachers were not meeting in person?

COVID has created a wave of hiring for school social workers, who not only have needed to help locate missing students but also help all students get resources to regain momentum—both developmentally and academically—and to get them mental health services and grief counseling if needed. But many school social workers see the problems of the “lost year” as a larger opportunity to make schools more welcoming and less punitive so students and school communities can thrive.

While You Were Gone

In the Boston area, Lesli Suggs, LICSW, president and CEO of The Home for Little Wanderers, was especially busy during COVID. The Home, which is more than 200 years old and initially served as an orphanage for children who had lost their parents, has 26 community programs in eastern Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire and New York City. The organization focuses on children who have experienced trauma and have behavioral challenges by helping them in the home where they live or providing homes where they can live and recover until they are reunified or gain permanent families. It also runs residential schools and helps to embed counselors in Boston area public schools.

Suggs has seen the gamut of issues that have confronted children, adolescents and teens during COVID. These include managing executive function skills to do assignments and homework remotely; lack of access or poor access to Zoom for schooling or meeting with clinicians; Zoom fatigue; long waits for acute inpatient psychiatric programs; social isolation; lack of Special Ed services and assessments; increased depression and anxiety, which is leading to suicidal ideation in some young people; guardians feeling overwhelmed from having to manage children’s schooling and technical issues; plus job loss that has “resulted in unimaginable stress for families.”

Full return to school will be beneficial, Suggs says, but like Robinson she is expecting a variety of issues to arise, if partial reopenings are an indication. “We need to address some of the most basic needs for the children and families we serve,” Suggs says. “For those that have suffered financial hardships through the pandemic, we need to help ensure they have housing, food and income. But beyond the basic needs, we know we’re looking at a mental health crisis coming out of the pandemic. Kids are experiencing anxiety and depression, and reopenings are finally giving us visibility to the depth and severity of this crisis.”

Also, students have begun reporting abuse “because they feel safe talking to the trusted adults at school about what has been happening,” Suggs says. “Those adults are then activating the Department of Children and Families and other support programs for the parent and child.” She adds that children who have been abused or neglected will need additional services outside of school.

man climbing rope over technology

In the Washington, D.C., area, Megan Berkowitz, LICSW, social work supervisor/manager for a network of public preschools, says they saw a near-even flip among school social workers who would have been providing direct behavioral or mental health services before COVID to case management during the pandemic. This includes supporting families with Internet connectivity and technology, and finding equipment and related support so students could attend school virtually. Berkowitz says the frequency of needs assessments also has changed. Before COVID, a campus needs assessment was taken at the beginning of the school year. During COVID, assessments were conducted as often as monthly, and she expects that to continue.

School social workers were taking advantage of the summer to pair up with counselors to find students. Plenty went missing during COVID — meaning their teachers did not see them in virtual classes and they were not turning in assignments. As “60 Minutes” reported, one social worker in Hillsborough County, Fla., was tasked with locating 7,000 students. When the report aired, she had found all but 700.

Physical dislocations often accompanied economic disruptions caused by the shutdowns. Early on, Clayton County established a task force where social workers received referrals from colleagues to check on children. A teacher Robinson knows was concerned for a student who, before COVID, had problems with his father to the point the student would often sleep at the park and did not always have food to eat when he wasn’t in school. One of his teachers paid his cell phone bills so they could keep in touch, she says. The teacher had not seen the student since March 2020. The task force followed through on such referrals to check on students and make sure they had what they needed to attend virtual classes and turn in assignments. The task force also helped these students find additional support.

Because of economic fallout and job loss, many students were working to support their families because their parents have not been able to return to work. Some students also may have been missing school because of that, Robinson says. In other cases, parents who did not have citizenship may have been deported and their children followed them, even if the students were U.S. citizens.

COVID, Racial Reckoning Spotlight Longstanding Issues

COVID has helped focus attention on the lack of resources of many students with impoverished backgrounds. This includes poor housing or homelessness, food insecurity and lack of other basics. Teachers and bus drivers did help to bring food to underserved students during the pandemic, but it is not enough, says Ron Avi Astor, PhD, MSW, who holds the Marjorie Crump Chair Professorship in Social Welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. And concurrent with COVID, racial reckoning also has highlighted the deep needs that have gone unfilled for decades in many communities where people of African American or Latin American descent make up the majorities—unmet needs that have often led to poor school attendance.

Rather than simply focus on academics and developmental concerns, Astor says there is a window of opportunity right now for those needs to be met, because without them, all the mental health services, all the academic support, will not matter.

Robinson has seen how lack of understanding in this can play out. “Many times, teachers and principals impose middle class values on our kids who don’t look at the world through the same lens,” she says. “That’s not their experience.” Few teachers and principals live in the same county where students live, she says. “They don’t take the time to go into the neighborhoods to know where these kids live.” She recalls an elementary school teacher who needed a guardian to sign a paper and who asked Robinson to serve as the liaison, but Robinson insisted the teacher accompany her. They visited a six-unit building, three units of which were boarded up. The teacher was shocked—and then not surprised at why the student had been acting up in class. “You could tell it resonated with her,” Robinson says.

Astor surveyed, with colleagues, 1,275 school social workers for insight not only into how school should reopen, but also how to prioritize needs. Out of the analysis of responses, there were four recommended actions: create a rapid-response team of school professionals from multiple fields to develop a systemic, national response to support schools; prioritize the hardest-hit schools; develop three evidence-driven plans for schools based on in-person, remote and hybrid instruction; and provide additional support, such as more school social workers, to the most stressed schools.

Astor sees the present as a prime opportunity to focus on basic needs without which students cannot succeed, including ensuring they have enough food. Last year, he wrote an op-ed for CNN to advocate for expansion of the existing program, started under President Harry Truman, to ensure that students are food secure. Adults know how they feel when they have not eaten on their usual schedules. Imagine trying to concentrate and learn new things when chronically hungry.

He also hopes that school social workers will seize the day, in terms of reimagining what schools can be, moving from punitive to welcoming, halting the flow in the schools-to-prisons pipeline in favor of helping students and the communities in which they live to thrive. How this can feel to students and parents as money is shifted toward school social work and related resources would be the opposite of punitive—not, “If you don’t come in, I’m going to refer you to the DA,” but rather, here is what we have to offer, which would be activities that would bring students and their families into the fold, he says. And what brings them in would be based on what they say they need.

“I don’t know too many social workers that say we don’t need to listen to what the community says, what the kids say,” Astor says. He suggests the best approach combines listening with evidence-based programming. “It’s a value we’ve always had—to do stuff that people want, not against their will, and to recognize the community knows more than we do what they need.”

Social workers, he says, are well equipped to help in that process, to help school systems move away from what is punitive. This includes food, but also how “we speak to each other, care about each other,” what makes people feel safe in school. It‘s “not just about skills and mental health, but what kind of society do we want to be—educating how we should treat each other and what should we do when we disagree, how do we culturally respect each other. These are just as important as having a good math program.” Astor plans to closely follow New York City public schools as they shift some 5,500 school resource officers to the education department.

From Punitive to Positive

Shifting from punitive to positive resonates with Robinson, who expects the coming year will see school social workers take on the added role of counseling one-on-one with students and perhaps seeing school districts not contract out that kind of work to third parties. She says that in Georgia, a big part of the workloads of school social workers is truancy, and she is interested in researching the connection between trauma and truancy.

man on rope ringing bell

Astor says school social workers and anyone involved with schools should assume that everyone has been through some kind of trauma during COVID, that it is not business as usual, and people need to anticipate mourning—missing a year of friendship, a year of graduations. To him, this means before moving into skills, to gather as communities to do something fun to help reweave relationships and create new ones. After school shootings, he says, there is counseling, of course, but it’s the vigils that bring people together. Such gatherings could be around art or sports and culturally relevant and unique to the school communities in which they take place. These, Astor says, may be more important than programs, skills or therapy because students and their families gain a sense of belonging, of feeling connected and supported. Instead of focusing on more services, he urges school social workers, teachers and staff to consider what kinds of “celebratory moments will bring kids to school, make them want to attend.”

He fears that if schools simply wait for students to show up on their own, they will drift into welfare or juvenile justice or “just being lost—a lost generation.” Instead, Astor suggests that districts get organized to make home visits and to ask students and their families, “What can we do to help? What resources do you need to get your kids to school every day?” In other words, schools can have a plan to make up the year, but in a way that is worthwhile for families and not stigmatizing.

Suggs hopes that Boston’s approach will have helped. The school system provided summer learning opportunities for students who were low in attendance, though parents had to provide permission. This includes online and in-person options as well as free tutoring, she says. With everyone being in “lost time,” Suggs says, “we are hopeful that teachers and schools will have the flexibility to meet students where they are academically, socially and emotionally and adjust expectations for kids accordingly.”

As important, teachers also need support during this time, The Home for Little Wanderers is offering “whole-school professional development for teachers and staff about how to identify and assess trauma symptoms,” says Suggs. “We are helping teachers transition back to in-person school by providing psycho-education services about mental health needs of students and helping teachers create intervention plans for specific kids.”

Besides their own support groups, teachers are being encouraged to build in “movement breaks and other things like mindfulness and relaxation that can help with kids’ regulation and coping during stressful situations,” Suggs adds.

Berkowitz says for professional development, school social workers are working with early childhood teachers to help them understand Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and to develop trauma-informed practices with students. For teachers, some of this means developing self-flexibility and the understanding that many students returning to school will need to re-learn how to be in school settings, to be around others and to work within social-distancing guidelines, for example, and how to speak, when under stress, in a way that’s restorative and reminding, she says.

Berkowitz sees schools as resource hubs, and school social workers can help schools serve in this way by advocating for structures and processes that will help ensure needs are met. For example, is there a structure in place so that a parent feels safe enough to say what they are going through, that there may be some instability concerning housing so that a school social worker may be able to offer assistance? This could mean school social workers take the initiative to create community partnerships or work to maintain existing ones.

“How can we support them in any way with that barrier so that students are able to fully access learning?” Berkowitz says. And with regard to early childhood education, specifically: “This is the first school experience for our families, so making it as supportive and as welcoming and trauma-informed as possible sets the tone for the rest of their career; we take that responsibility seriously.”


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