When I was teaching in Chicago, I relied heavily on my colleagues who were school social workers. If a student disclosed that they’d been abused, for example, or shared thoughts of self-harm, I would call on Faiza, Molly, Diana, Megan, or Jessica. They knew when to make a referral, when to call a parent, and when to do neither. They were warm and inviting without being intrusive or cloying. They were cool in a crisis. I’m pretty sure they all had resting heart rates of about 42.

Their involvement meant peace of mind. By providing a safe space for kids to talk with an expert, the social workers relieved pressure on teachers like me. But it was more than that. Because each time they helped one of my students, they would check on me, too. We would follow up a long conversation with a potentially suicidal sophomore and his mom with a just-as-long conversation about how the first conversation had gone. They made sure I got to talk. And by doing so, they helped me learn how to process the secondary trauma that is an inherent part of teaching and other first-responder professions.

Over the last three months, I’ve checked in three times with three different school social workers at three different kinds of schools: public, public charter, and private. I wanted to know what the coronavirus crisis meant for each of them, and the students they served. Despite the differences between their schools, the social workers themselves have things in common: all three, for example, are white women under the age of 32 who work in the Midwest. (One, Megan Murray, is the same Megan mentioned above—which is to say, a former colleague, now finishing her final year at the high school where I once taught.) Their experiences are just that, and are not meant to represent their profession. I created the following “as told to” dispatches based on notes I took during our interviews.

These social workers’ already-difficult jobs have been made much harder by the shutdown. But each has carried on, with creativity and perseverance, doing what they can to keep helping kids and teachers.

* * *

MARCH 17, 2020

Sam Dunne, 31
Elementary School Social Worker
Anne M. Jeans Elementary School (Public)
Willowbrook, Illinois

Students are 66 percent black, 17 percent white, rest other; 80 percent low-income.

Last Friday afternoon, I was working with staff and students to pack meal bags to send home in case we shut down: apple sauce, fruit cups, cereal, sunflower butter and jelly. We were packing about 500 bags, each with five breakfasts and five lunches. We found out midway through our packing that the school was closing that afternoon, so the food had to be distributed immediately. The kids all went home with bags.

Our school is such a hub in the community. Most of my students live right behind the school, within walking distance. We’re going to do more meal pickups like that, and there’s also a food pantry on site once a week, as well as a doctor.

I have about a dozen students from pre-K to fourth grade on my caseload that I meet with regularly, under normal circumstances. Most of them have individualized education plans (IEPs) that include mandated minutes with me. Each of them has a goal that we work on together every week. The rest of my students don’t have IEPs but have still been identified as needing support.

I also meet with small groups and go into classrooms for thirty-minute social-emotional learning lessons. I teach skills like empathy, emotional regulation, and problem solving. (We might be able to keep doing that via Google Classroom, I’m not sure.) But my work is also just about helping kids maintain a consistent genuine relationship with an adult they know cares about them.

I just signed up for a webinar about how to talk to kids about the coronavirus. Their anxiety and depression are likely to increase as this thing goes on. I’m happy to meet with kids via phone or Google Meet, but some of them are too young to know how to do that, or don’t have the devices or internet connection they need.

We’re a very small school district. There are four social workers total for the elementary and middle school students. We’ve been checking in at 8:30 every morning, trying to figure out how to connect with our parents and support our teachers.

I also have a private therapy practice. Right now, I’m still seeing people in person if they want, but I’m also offering telehealth. I want to make myself available as best I can.

I’m feeling somewhat confused, but also hopeful and motivated. We’ve never done this before, much like other districts. This is new.

*

Megan Murray, 30
High School Social Worker
Chicago Bulls College Prep (Public Charter)
Chicago, Illinois

Students are 67 percent Hispanic, 31 percent black, rest other; 90 percent low-income.

Last Friday is when I noticed it the most among students and staff. Not panic, but uncertainty. Discomfort. People were on edge, wondering: Should we be here? Is this safe? But even then, it wasn’t the sole focus yet. The rest of life was still happening, too.

Then, late on Sunday night, we found out that school was closed starting Monday. Someone within our charter school network had gotten the virus, so they shut down earlier than planned. This is definitely new territory.

The expectation right now is that I’m supposed to keep providing services to the students who normally get direct social work minutes with me. But I can only talk to them via phone if a parent or guardian has given consent. So that’s the first step: seeking written consent via email, and if that fails, seeking verbal consent over the phone. So far, in reaching out to parents, most of them have approved.

But the next problem is getting the students to respond to my emails, which aren’t totally confidential or secure anyway. It’s also been hard to reach them via phone. I’m blocking my personal number with *67, so maybe that’s part of why they’re not picking up. I might be able to use a Google Voice number instead.

And then in terms of the online platforms, I don’t think Google Video is HIPAA compliant. I’m not sure which platforms are, except for DoxyMe, which I use in my private practice. (I’m normally at the school three days a week and with private clients the other two days.) But DoxyMe requires telehealth certification and consent, and that’s a whole other process. So, there are a lot of barriers, which is making it super tricky right now.

The most common issues my kids were dealing with before the crisis were stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma. About two thirds of them (20 out of 30) have IEPs or 504 plans, meaning they need extra supports because they have a learning disability or emotional disability that makes learning more challenging. Obviously, learning remotely will pose even more challenges.

I’m especially concerned about kids in the Students in Temporary Living Situations Program (STLS). Some of our students rely on school for their meals, and for warmth and safety and stability. Some of our campuses are staying open to provide food, and the Chicago Public Schools are offering food, too. At our campuses that are open, you can pick up three days’ worth of meals at a time.

We’ve got a whole team of social workers trying to figure out how to keep doing our jobs. But in the meantime, even though I’ve reached out to my entire caseload, I haven’t really made successful contact with any of them yet. We’re not prepared for this.

*

Casey Merrill, 26
Middle and High School Social Worker
Lake Michigan Catholic Middle & High School (Private)
St. Joseph, Michigan

There is no publicly available data on student demographics—Merrill says a majority are white and affluent, with a small Hispanic population and a few black students.

The energy in the air is tense.

We walked into school last Friday knowing that we would be shut down for the next three weeks, plus spring break. So I had to put out a few fires. A lot of the seniors were upset because this was supposed to be the fun time of the school year and now their retreat and prom are being canceled. And some of the middle schoolers were fearful. It’s scary. I can’t imagine being a kid during this time. I think I would have a lot of anxiety, too.

I have a caseload of about 30-35 kids. I mostly work with them one-on-one in my office. But I also work with some groups and do bi-monthly presentations in classrooms. We work together on a variety of things: anger management, social skills, emotional regulation, organization, self-esteem, mental illness.

Today is actually the first day of online classes, but I don’t want to overwhelm my students, so I’m going to wait just a little to reach out to them. I’m still on the fence about video-calling, anyway, because of confidentiality, but also because of the boundaries we’d be blurring between school and home. It feels a bit yucky to blend those two things. But we’re going to try.

Some of my neediest kids have therapists outside of school, which is good. But I’m worried about the ones who already lack parental supervision and the ones who already struggle with academics, organization, and motivation. I work with kids as young as 11, and now they’re being asked to log in to these various classrooms, get their own homework, view lectures. Plus, we have some students who don’t have internet at home.

I’m also worried about the kids who rely on school to get food and receive love. For some of our students, school is the one place they can go where people care.

* * *

APRIL 24, 2020

Sam Dunne: It’s so hard to do sessions with kids virtually. A kid who would have talked to me in person is now holding a phone, sitting next to their parent, giving monosyllabic answers. It’s all just so strange.

The state board of education put out regulations for what remote learning and special education services are supposed to look like right now. That led to a meeting with my director about how to follow the guidelines in our district: basically, we are having to create individual remote learning plans for kids with IEPs.

I’m also still meeting with my team at 8:30 every morning to figure this out. One of the social workers is sending home paper packets and offering kids the option to check in individually. Two are doing Zoom sessions. I’ve gone the video route, with the option to check in, too.

So basically, if I used to meet with a kid for 30 minutes a week, I now record a 15-minute video lesson for them instead. The videos are aligned to our social-emotional learning goals: conflict resolution, giving and receiving compliments, gratitude, and mindfulness. I don’t know whether or not the rest of the minutes will need to be made up at some point. I’m also doing videos for teachers’ classes, and videos for my small groups, as well.

Our school is still giving out food on Wednesdays. (But the onsite food pantry is shut down for now, as is the doctor’s office.)

Access to technology has continued to be a problem, so the district has ordered enough laptops for every family to be able to have one. Phones just aren’t enough for things like Google Classroom. (Parents can also pick up paper packets on Wednesdays. Teachers submit them on Monday, and the principal goes in and makes the copies.)

My principal also just posted a bunch of pictures from our empty building, with things just the way we left them. It was strangely moving.

I feel good about what I’m doing. Last week, I had two great conversations with parents about how hard all of this is. I told them they only needed to do an hour of school a day with their kids, and if they couldn’t swing it, that was okay, too. But with my kids with IEPs, sometimes I just won’t hear back from their parents at all. I don’t take it personally, but it does make me sad. For the most part, I don’t think I have a good feel for how the kids or parents are doing.

Meanwhile, I still have my private practice. And my husband is an essential worker. My kids can’t hug him when he gets home until he changes his clothes.

I have two kids. The older one is five years old, and I’m trying to get him registered for kindergarten. And this is the younger one, who just turned two. I was trying to have him watch Toy Story while we talked, but that didn’t work, so now he’s on my lap. Which isn’t working, either. I’m going to grab him a cookie…

The reason we had things the way they were before all of this was because we needed boundaries. I could be a school social worker and then come home and be a mom. The days that are the hardest are when I’m trying to figure out which hat I’m wearing. And of course, I feel guilty plopping the kids downstairs in front of the TV. I miss the boundaries.

*

Megan Murray: I’ve now gotten in touch with most of my students. I’m still not using video, even though teachers are, because of security, because of HIPAA compliance, and because a lot of our students can’t have private conversations in their homes. Confidentiality is so important, and it’s the law. Still, I hope to move to video soon, especially with seniors who are about to graduate.

For now, I’m using Google Voice for calls and texts, and also doing email check-ins. (Of course, privacy is an issue with phone calls, too. In my private practice, clients have gone into bathrooms, or sat outside in their cars.)

Normally, I’m also responding to referrals and situations that arise in school throughout the day. At the beginning of all of this, that slowed down a lot. Lately, as teachers have gotten in touch with more of their students, the referrals are starting back up. I’m talking to kids who are struggling with the lack of routine and structure, kids who are feeling alone and isolated, kids who are being directly impacted by the coronavirus—and also kids who just want to know if they actually have to do their work right now.

Luckily, I feel like our school has been really organized and good at responding. At our quarterly report card pick-up, which was virtual, we had this giant spreadsheet where social workers and student advisors were entering student needs. If a kid needs a WiFi hotspot or Chromebook, for example, we can now get it to them within about 7-10 days. (Our charter school network has purchased thousands of devices and is covering six months of internet for students who need it.)

We’re all trying to do our best to check in with the students as much as possible. And we’re definitely prioritizing those who have experienced abuse in the past. But we can’t see students in person, there’s less communication, and it’s much harder to be on top of stuff like that. Our social work referral rate is still nowhere near what it used to be. It’s scary to think that there could be a lot of cases that we’re just not aware of. Cases that we’re missing.

I’ve had to enroll three more students in the STLS program since the shutdown. One was living with their grandmother, but then their grandmother died, so they had to move in with another family. Another lost their father and had to move in with their sister. I’m just trying to get people connected with as many resources as possible.

We’ve also sent out mental health resources to staff to make sure they’re aware of the supports that are out there. Some have reached out to me directly for therapist recommendations. People are definitely feeling all the things: relieved that things have slowed down and they have more time with family, scared about what’s going to happen, worried about their students, pressured to adjust to this whole new style of teaching and providing services, grieving the loss of their old lives. And when this is all over, there will be another loss of this new normal that was created.

*

Casey Merrill: Sorry I’m sweaty, I just finished an Insanity workout. It’s a two-month program, but I’ve added a third month. It’s one of the ways I’m taking care of myself.

I send out weekly emails to staff and parents with self-care resources, but I always try everything myself first. So I’ve also been practicing mindfulness, doing puzzles, drawing, watching movies. The best one I watched recently was Call Me By Your Name.

Anyway, I’ve started doing video sessions with my students. I usually see two or three students a day for about 25-30 minutes. (Although lately, it’s been more like 45 minutes.) Some kids have family struggles that necessitate crisis planning. We’re thinking through, if something bad happens, what will they do? Who are their safe people?

I also do a lot of emailing with students and their parents. I stay in contact with students’ outside therapists. And I’m participating in and helping facilitate new club offerings on Fridays. (They’re each based around a theme, like cooking, gardening, and “furry friends.”)

Overall, kids with more resources are adjusting well. Others have collapsed into themselves. They find it hard to get out of bed. For kids like that, I’m relying on their parents for help. There are also kids who don’t want to video chat. Some are too shy. Or their parents aren’t on board. They want to know, “why are you talking to my kid? What’s wrong with my kid? Why do you need private time with my child?”

There are also kids I haven’t reached at all.

We’re still tracking grades and attendance, and I like that. It keeps the kids busy. And I want them to learn. That’s our job as a school.

But I’ve also seen an increase in referrals linked to academics. There are kids with straight F’s, so I need to check in with them.

* * *

MAY 29, 2020

Sam Dunne: I’m out in my backyard with the kids. Can you see and hear me okay?

Our school year ended May 20. It’s a huge relief.

But before that, I found that in order to obtain Medicaid funding, we needed to be doing telehealth. So I wound up holding weekly Zoom sessions for the kids on my caseload where we would work on skills together. It wasn’t ideal. The groups were bigger than I would have liked, and the lessons weren’t necessarily tied to each kid’s individual goal. But it was as good as it could be with a few weeks to go.

There’s going to be remote summer school. And our school is still handing out food each week. Also, the food pantry on campus has re-opened. They’re doing curbside delivery straight to waiting cars. But the doctor’s office hasn’t reopened yet.

We don’t know what next year will look like. I keep hearing different things, so until there’s concrete news, I’m just trying to accept the not-knowing.

*

Megan Murray: Today is the seniors’ last day. I’ve been closing things out with them. Everyone else is done June 11.

I’ll be working in my private practice full-time next year. I still have to let my 11th-graders know. That would have been a hard conversation, anyway. It’ll be even harder now.

Referrals are still pretty slow but they’re still coming in. They’re pretty much all related to the pandemic: kids dealing with loss, sickness, financial hardship, anxiety.

Students I already know have been very willing to receive help. But new referrals have been less willing to receive social work support.

I think it’s a lot easier to start relationships when you can meet face-to-face. You can just offer kids a break from class and talk. But starting things remotely is harder. There’s a limit to the personal connection and support I can provide behind my laptop and phone. It’s unfortunate, but I feel like I’ve had less impact with those students.

I often ask myself, am I doing enough? Should I be reaching out more?

As a school and as a network, our priorities have changed. Now, our number one priority is our students’ safety and well-being. Which is amazing. It seems like all of our staff communication with students right now is focused on, “How are you? I’m here for you. If you can show up, great. If you can’t come to these virtual office hours, it’s totally fine.” There’s a lot more support. And we’re not penalizing students for what they can’t do. Their grades cannot go down right now.

But it makes me question: Why isn’t this always the priority? Why does it take a pandemic for us to realize this?

As social workers, we have never had the option to ignore safety and wellness, because of the number of students coming to us with trauma, anxiety, stress, and depression. We see these things every day. But schools (and students and families) get so caught up focusing on test scores and grades and lose sight of what really matters. Our students need to be safe and healthy before anything else.

About three-quarters of our upperclassmen have been engaged with remote learning these last couple of months. But there are also students we’ve heard from just once. Some students were passing their classes already and aren’t motivated to keep working, knowing they can’t fail. Then again, a lot are still engaged. They want to learn, and they want our support.

Our principal said recently that this moment is allowing our kids to practice a lot of college-readiness skills, like organization and self-advocacy and time management. I hope we can keep that going after this. I hope we can find ways to foster their independence when we’re back in person.

For everyone, staff included, the pandemic is a form of trauma. It’s a threat to our well-being, safety, and sense of normalcy. So, our feelings of anxiety and stress are completely normal.

As a staff, we’re doing a lot to help each other. Folks have been hosting social events, like trivia and baking. The social work team did a presentation on self-care recently at an all-staff meeting, since May is Mental Health Awareness Month. But I think some staff members are struggling with guilt and sadness as we watch how differently this is impacting us versus our kids.

Trauma and hardship are nothing new to our students and families. They’ve been dealing with poverty, racial discrimination, and community violence long before this pandemic started.

And actually, being on lockdown is nothing new to our students from the South and West Sides, either. Historically, their more privileged counterparts have gotten excited about being outside during the summer. But our students have feared the summer. They’ve associated it with death and loss and crime. Their parents have kept them on lockdown to keep them safe.

Even though many things have come to a halt with this pandemic, the crises of racial discrimination and police brutality and murder have not stopped. Our students are still dealing with those issues—and with being disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus.

Update on June 1, 2020, after multiple nights of protests in Chicago over the death of George Floyd:

Our social work team is hosting two virtual support groups for our students this week to create a safe space for them to process all that is going on in the world, to be heard and validated, and to provide mental health resources.

*

Casey Merrill: Today’s the last day of school. It’s kind of exciting. And a little tense. I always feel reflective this time of year. There are a lot of tears. I write my students letters and drop them in the mail. Last year, one of them told me the letter was a lifeline to get them through the summer.

I’m thinking about how many of my students struggled with quarantine and not being in school. There are students who were once straight-A students who are now failing. That surprised me and made me sad. I reached out to talk about how no one is looking over them every day anymore. They need to plan and organize and advocate for themselves.

It really shows how important being in a place where you receive positive regard is. You can tell which kids don’t get that at home. For them, not having that has been so challenging.

(There are also students who figured things out. I don’t worry about them.)

I think we’ve gotten everyone online now. But there are still a few students I haven’t reached. And for those I’ve been meeting with, confidentiality and privacy have been an issue. But in school social work, you kind of always want to talk like their parents are listening, anyway. You don’t want to say anything to a client that you wouldn’t want others to hear. So I guess it’s been a good exercise for me to do that a little more.

I had a kid whose parent died. That was one of the hardest times. They couldn’t even have a funeral. And I know the kid is angry. And I can’t do anything about it.

A huge overarching emotion for me has been helplessness. I’m just sitting at my desk with my computer all day—I barely move. I’m trying to make contact, offer some guidance. But I have no control. Though I do like to think families have gotten stronger from this. That idea keeps me going.

I’ve been going on a lot of walks and looking at nature. Enjoying the weather. Playing with my cat. Going on drives. Enjoying a glass of red wine when I can. And I’m in the middle of my fourth straight month of Insanity. It keeps me sane.

There’s a lot of civil unrest right now. I live in an area that’s very, very red. A lot of people—our school’s families, my parents’ friends—are very angry. I think that’s going to color a lot of the summer. People are going to stop social distancing and wearing masks—I’m already seeing it.

I have no idea what the fall is going to look like. The school has talked about spacing out the desks, having less kids in classrooms, putting up hand-sanitizing stations. But I don’t know.

I’m actually moving to Connecticut this summer with my boyfriend. I don’t have a new job lined up yet, but social workers are considered essential, and there are places that are hiring.

I’m not sure if I’ll stay in schools. The summers off are great, but the money isn’t. It’s hard to live paycheck-to-paycheck and be as broke as I’ve been. I might try to work in hospitals instead.

I usually have a plan, but I’m trying to embrace the uncertainty.

DJ Cashmere

DJ Cashmere is the creator and host of the pandemic-era education podcast Teach the People. His reporting on education, politics, and culture has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Nation, The Village Voice, Chalkbeat, The Millions, and Yes! Magazine. Before becoming a journalist, DJ taught in public and public charter schools for eight years in Chicago. He now lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.

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