Over 120 graduate students at U of T’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work (FIFSW) are completing their practicums remotely during the winter semester this year due to COVID-19. According to Eileen McKee, Assistant Dean Field Education, of the 405 social work students completing practicums this semester, over 30 per cent chose doing remote practicums and another nearly 40 per cent are doing a mixture of remote and in-person work. Students were able to choose between in-person and remote placements. 

Because the nature of social work normally involves interacting with people in person, it has been more difficult for students to have the same experiences they would have had in person while operating remotely. Social workers normally interact with people in a variety of environments, often working with families or people in precarious situations.

McKee wrote in an email to The Varsity that many students’ practicums are remote “out of necessity,” as “many social workers have shifted to remote care delivery where possible to ensure [their] safety and the safety of their clients.”

“Our students are understandably disappointed that the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced opportunities for in-person practicums,” McKee added. 

The in-person experience of social work 

Nalian Youmer and Susanna Damiani di Vergada, the co-presidents of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work Graduate Student Association (FIFSW GSA), wrote in an email to The Varsity that most students chose to have in-person practicums. 

The FIFSW GSA conducted a survey in April to assess students’ plans for the upcoming year. “Students expressed that they really wanted an in-person practicum or at the very least, the option for students to do in-person,” wrote Youmer and Damiani di Vergada. 

“As the cases increased dramatically in November, some supervisors asked students to do work remotely,” they added, stressing that for social work students, this may feel like a missed opportunity.

“What we have heard from students is there is a sense that… we’re missing out on the in-person experience,” wrote Youmer and Damiani di Vergada. “There is a different bond that can be made when the person is in the room with you and more able to build rapport.” They add that another drawback is “not having the opportunity to engage or meet with other professionals in the placement.”

“It’s important not to trivialize the importance of in-person education and [practicums] in social work, as there are different nuances at play that are missed virtually,” Youmer and Damiani di Vergada wrote.

A student’s perspective on in-person versus virtual care

Emily Chan, who is in her second year of the Master of Social Work program, is completing her practicum in person at the Hospital for Sick Children, where she provides support and counselling to youth who have hearing impairments. Though Chan goes into work, about half her clients opt for online appointments, so she gets to practise both in-person and virtual care. 

Chan noted that virtual care can be challenging, especially for many of her clients with hearing impairments. “It can be difficult for them to communicate over a virtual platform, given sound difficulties [or] a lag in video,” she said in an interview with The Varsity. Chan added that the ability to read facial expressions more easily in person greatly aids communication with her clients. 

Chan, who is disabled, said that the decision to take on an in-person placement has been difficult. “I feel kind of hesitant… to go into work… given the number of [COVID-19] cases and everything,” she said. “But I struggle a lot because I want to get the most out of my learning.” 

“Do I go into work and potentially risk my health for the sake of my learning?” she said. “Or do I scale back and advocate to do more work from home, but at the risk of not learning as much through direct client interactions?” Chan added that when she briefly worked remotely, her tasks were mainly administrative, and she wasn’t able to conduct counselling sessions with clients. 

Chan said that since many of her peers were placed in remote practicums, she feels like she should take advantage of the opportunity to work in person. “I’m really blessed and lucky to be able to have an in-person practicum.” 

The future of social work 

Though many students are disappointed with remote practicums, McKee believes students will benefit from receiving this training in virtual care. “This will prepare them well for the future because even after the restrictions made necessary by the pandemic cease, remote social work will remain part of social work practice in some form,” she wrote. 

McKee went on to list some of the advantages of remote care. “Parents don’t have to find childcare to speak to a counsellor. Young adults don’t have to find someone to drive them to their appointment. The cost and time commitment of commuting is no longer there. It also allows for more flexibility to meet during the day,” she wrote. “These are some of the advantages that people aren’t likely to want to totally give up in the future.” 

Chan agreed with McKee’s assessment of the future of social work. “I think a lot of clients are seeing the benefits of virtual care,” she said. “It makes things a lot more accessible for a lot more clients, especially those who live far away.” She added that for many clients, conducting a therapy session at home helps them feel relaxed, “as opposed to coming into an office which can be triggering or anxiety provoking.”

Youmer and Damiani di Vergada have also noticed some benefits of virtual care. “It is easier to provide interprofessional care, by having conference calls or video calls where multiple professionals can talk with the client,” they wrote. 

They continued, “We’re understanding that virtual care may be a reality for a while longer, so we hope that having had these experiences will be an asset when students will begin searching for jobs in the field.” 

McKee rejects the notion that social work is necessarily best done in person. “The pandemic has revealed a number of benefits to remote care that we will want to continue to focus on in the future,” she wrote.Social work is inherently social, but it still occurs with the help of technology.”