We didn’t start this year thinking that we would be operating the School of Social Welfare out of our living rooms. But with all of California sheltering in place this spring, the COVID-19 crisis has upended the school year. Despite the disruptions and the many uncertainties, the upheaval of this school year has built our resourcefulness and reminded us of our strengths.
We first started hearing about instructional resilience in October 2019, when planned power shut-offs cancelled classes and closed the Cal campus, and 200,000 people were evacuated due to fires in the North Bay. With the possibility of more shutoffs and wildfires looming, UC Berkeley stepped up its campuswide preparations for how to keep things running if students, faculty, and staff couldn’t come to campus. Most people realized that this was a valuable practice run, but few thought that our resilience would be tested so much, so soon.
COVID-19 cases in the US started making headlines shortly after the Spring semester started. Throughout the month of February, we received travel advisories and other updates from campus leadership. Then in early March, things started to change very quickly. On March 2, when the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Alameda County, faculty and students were told to prepare for possible disruptions to instruction. Then on Friday, March 6, an email from Chancellor Carol Christ called on all members of the campus community to “prepare for the possibility that in the near future we will need to shift to working, teaching, and learning remotely and virtually as much as possible.” On Monday March 9 came the announcement that in-person instruction was suspended, and UC Berkeley — followed shortly by the rest of the state — embarked on a massive experiment in distance learning. Shelter-in-place orders were announced the following week and remain in place as of this writing.
Shifting to online instruction is a major pivot to any program, but what do you do when your program has a field education component? Faculty wrestled with the dilemma of how to shield students from front-line risks while minimizing disruptions to agencies and populations they were placed with. Director of Field Education Greg Merrill and all of the field instructors spent long hours working with partner agencies and with students to find solutions. Field partners had previously been asked to identify alternate learning activities, so some students were able to continue hours remotely. In recognition of the level of disruption that both students and agencies were facing, the senate faculty approved a one-time reduction of required field education hours for cohorts entering in 2018–19 and 2019–20. This reduction remained within CSWE guidelines, and the 7% of students who had additional hours to complete were able to access online pre-licensure courses offered by the NASW.
As Merrill phrased it in a mid-March email to field partners, “this is not how any of us wanted our year of field instruction to go.” As with so many other aspects of COVID-19, it demanded flexibility in the face of rapid change, but the strength of our relationships with field partners stood us in good stead.
Meanwhile, the shift to online instruction presented its own set of complexities. Preparing an in-person course for an online platform takes more than one week in the best of times, and these were not the best of times. Some students didn’t have adequate equipment or wifi access at home; the campuswide Student Technology Fund organized a laptop and wifi hotspot lending program for those students. Other problems were harder to solve. With K-12 schools closed throughout California, some faculty members and some students suddenly found themselves homeschooling. Financial pressures loomed large, too.
In short, moving course content online was just one among many changes that students and faculty faced. In recognition of these stressors, faculty made a number of changes. Following campuswide instructions, they dropped attendance requirements so that students with caregiving responsibilities wouldn’t be penalized. Syllabi and assignments were revised to focus on core content and reflect the challenging circumstances everyone was working under. To reduce student stress, the default grading option was changed to Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory for graduates and P/NP for undergrads. As Associate Dean Susan Stone stated in an email to faculty, “our goal is to adhere to our academic mission by maintaining instructional continuity for our students balanced with both compassion and flexibility.”
“[The pandemic] is going to force us to step up, be creative, and navigate our lives in very different ways. It will also reveal our strengths and help us to elevate those strengths to new heights within ourselves as individuals and among others. We might consider this real-time test of who we are as an opportunity to further develop our talents.” — Dean Burton
Through all of this, Dean Linda Burton consistently sent messages of compassion and support reminding both students and faculty of the resources available to them. Her messages — and the staff and faculty actively helping students navigate an unprecedented situation — made it clear that “we will not let you fall through the cracks.” Moreover, she encouraged everyone to see the opportunity to emerge stronger. “[The pandemic] is going to force us to step up, be creative, and navigate our lives in very different ways. It will also reveal our strengths and help us to elevate those strengths to new heights within ourselves as individuals and among others. We might consider this real-time test of who we are as an opportunity to further develop our talents.” In an unsettling time, Dean Burton provided unwavering reminders of our individual and collective strengths.
Staff adjusted to working remotely, and discovered new sides of their colleagues as they peeked into each other’s living rooms and got glimpses of each other’s children and pets. Opportunities to share good news became more important than ever.
Faculty and Student Research
As the pandemic highlighted longstanding social inequities, it brought a new urgency to the problems that Berkeley Social Welfare exists to address. Since mid-March 2020, faculty, graduate students, and alumni have contributed to national conversations around behavioral health, equity, and other key issues in the time of COVID-19. Jeff Edleson was interviewed by CNN and Berkeley News about the impact of lockdowns on domestic violence, Tina Sacks was interviewed by Berkeley News about racial inequities in health care, and Erin Kerrison was interviewed by KPFA about the unequal impact of COVID on disproportionately black neighborhoods in the East Bay. Adrian Aguilera was interviewed by the San Francisco Chronicle about digital health, and led a panel discussion about telehealth and issues of equity for under-resourced communities as part of the “Berkeley Conversations” series. Susan Stone and her research partner Joyce Dorado of UCSF outlined trauma-informed strategies for addressing the impacts of COVID-19, also as part of the “Berkeley Conversations” series. In June, Erin Kerrison will lead a panel discussion on COVID-19 in the context of law enforcement and the justice system.
Postdoctoral researcher Caroline Figueroa published an op-ed arguing that COVID-19 shows the need for remote options for mental health care. Doctoral student Katie Savin published an online article exploring the implications of disability discrimination in health care decision-making during the pandemic.
The pandemic is also leading to new research directions for our faculty. Adrian Aguilera’s ongoing study about the effectiveness of automated text messaging as a support for cognitive behavioral therapy is now exploring the effectiveness of automated messaging for mental health support under social distancing conditions. Anu Manchikanti Gómez shifted her study focused on stress and pregnancy among Black and Latinx women in Alameda County and San Francisco to examine the additional impact of COVID-19 related stress. Gómez is also proposing a new study that focuses on how COVID-19 (and the related recession) is changing people’s preferences around pregnancy and timing, with a focus on how low-income workers make decisions with the added constraints of shelter-in-place, job loss, etc.
Given the many impacts of COVID-19 on the practice of social work, the pandemic also presented an unexpected opportunity to connect professionally. Greg Merrill created a series of online discussion forums for alumni to share their experiences and best practices as social workers in the middle of a pandemic. This effort to create an online community of practice among social workers responding to COVID-19 was very well received, with many participants commenting on the value of being able to hear from other MSWs about day-to-day experiences in their field. Since current students were invited as well, the forum was also an opportunity to build professional connections.
CalSWEC also found opportunities to innovate. In early May, the Integrated Behavioral Health Program held a virtual version of its annual San Francisco Bay Area Integrated Behavioral Health Symposium focusing on the use of telehealth in the delivery of behavioral health care services in primary care settings. CalSWEC developed COVID-19 resources for partner universities to reflect changes in field conditions for Title IV-E students. In addition, Bay Area project coordinators from San Jose State University, San Francisco State University, Cal State East Bay, and UC Berkeley, worked with CalSWEC staff to develop an online Field Instructor Training which will be ready to use by fall 2020.
In this sense, the pandemic has opened some new possibilities. Online lectures and trainings will make our programming more accessible to working professionals and students considering a career in social welfare. Virtual communities of practice will connect alumni with each other and with students.
But we are no strangers to hardship, we are resilient, we are compassionate, we are not afraid of a challenge, and we will continue to support each other and connect with our larger community as we work through challenges and uncertainty.
As of this writing, many uncertainties remain. But as a school of social work with a mission to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems, there will be many occasions when we are faced with problems that are beyond our individual power to solve. By definition, social work offers problem-based learning and asks that we stay regulated even when there are no easy answers. But we are no strangers to hardship, we are resilient, we are compassionate, we are not afraid of a challenge, and we will continue to support each other and connect with our larger community as we work through challenges and uncertainty.