Creating Opportunity for Collaboration in a Crisis
Co-Authored by Julie Robinson & Lori Klein
No one could have predicted the monumental ripple effect the COVID-19 virus would have on the world. The stay-at-home recommendations, wearing masks, closures, panic, and uncertainty of it all was overwhelming and devastating. As more information became available, it became increasingly clear that the shutdown would last longer than a few weeks. The world essentially became virtual overnight.
Working in a practice model, driven primarily through face-to-face interactions, left many practitioners in a crisis within a crisis.
Rather than viewing this as a professional dilemma, colleagues Lori Klein and Julie Robinson approached the situation as an opportunity. Lori, a School Social Worker, and Julie, a School Psychologist, expanded their reach by creating a virtual classroom. What started as a virtual lifeline grew into a live, interactive community focused around social-emotional competencies with a splash of fun.
How It Began
Lori: Our story began before the pandemic erupted when we started working together in the fall of 2019. Julie, an experienced school psychologist just hired by Fairfax County Public Schools, joined the Comprehensive Services Site (CSS) team at Woodson. I had been serving the Woodson program as a school social worker for the previous 8 years. The CSS program offers a higher level of service to students with significant emotional difficulties as well as students on the Autism spectrum. Students come from other area high schools to receive instruction in small, self-contained special education classrooms as well as having access to clinical support from the designated School Social Worker and School Psychologist who are assigned specifically to the program.
Julie: Lori and I hit it off right away. She was instrumental in helping me acclimate to my new role in the highly specialized CSS program. Our roles included offering individual counseling and crisis management services. Lori and I also combined forces to offer group counseling and social skills groups. The decision to present as a united team in supporting students was made early on. We modeled that collaborative approach for parents and staff figuring it would produce the most desirable results. We teamed up and expanded our more traditional roles to include an instructional component in the classrooms (focused on social-emotional competencies). In addition to that direct instruction, I opened a “practice” Google classroom with resources and activities to supplement student learning.
The World in Crisis
Lori: When COVID-19 forced the schools to shut down, Julie and I were at a bit of a loss as to how we might continue to support our kids without that face-to-face contact. The school division was trying to respond to the situation and each department viewed how services might be provided through a different lens. There was so much uncertainty about what was not only practical but legal.
As practitioners, we shared feeling lost and frustrated as we attempted to navigate changing rules and limitations as well as those feelings associated with the disconnection from our students.
Julie: For the first couple of weeks after the school shut down, we were in total limbo, like everyone else. We then received the news that schools would not reopen in the foreseeable future. Lori and I quickly realized that we would have to carve out a way to continue providing services to our students. Our conundrum was further complicated by the fact that directives as to how to provide services were in flux and the program staff members did not have a sense as to how we might be utilized in this new instructional format.
It felt like we were stranded on an island without a map, boat, or any idea which way the current was traveling.
Lori: One morning early on we were having a discussion on what we were going to do? How were we going to provide support? And how long was this situation going to last? We were only a few days in and we were struggling with the fact that our world as we knew it had changed drastically, even the rules on how to provide services had changed. In fact, nobody really knew what the rules were as the school system was still trying to figure all that out from a practical and legal standpoint, and to be perfectly honest, we were all a bit lost and frustrated. Julie had the idea of creating a Google Classroom and wanted to name it Clinicians’ Corner. Why not! We had some time on our hands and we needed a way to reach out to our students.
We knew that these students needed to be able to have contact with us and we needed to get something going relatively quickly. Given the nature of our students and some of the struggles they endured, we knew that we had our work cut out for us. Many were difficult to engage with while in the school environments which meant that this new way needed to be interactive, fun, and informative. We also knew that some of the students would want to continue to reach out to us on an individual basis, how were we going to check all of these boxes?
Julie: The idea to create the Google classroom evolved from the work already started in the building. I had been developing lessons for the practice classroom that was supporting our small group instruction but it was more of a side project. In light of the circumstances, it seemed like a good time to capitalize on the technology. We figured that the kids were familiar with that format so I opened the classroom and designated Lori and me as the co-teachers. We invited all of the students in the program to join our Clinicians’ Corner and made a point to keep just us as the “instructors.”
Our goal was to create a space where the students could access clinical support in this virtual environment.
At that time, we really didn’t have any idea as to what we were going to do in this classroom, we just wanted to be accessible and continue supporting those relationships we had developed throughout the school year. Given that our student population isn’t highly motivated by social connectedness, we were pretty excited when about 80% of our students joined in!
Taking Collaboration to the Next Level
Lori: Our days quickly filled with talking to one another trying to figure out how we were going to support these students in a way that would have a positive impact. The extra benefit for both of us was that we had each other, and we were less isolated and it helped to lift our own spirits. We quickly fell into the routine of daily planning FaceTime calls (multiple times a day), videos going back and forth, and endless conversation. This is what helped us to stay motivated and interactive on a professional level as well as lessening our own social isolation – we had a common goal and continued to use our team approach to tackle our new challenge.
Julie: One of the early obstacles we faced was that many of our students do not seek out social interactions. Several were more comfortable being left alone, hiding out in their rooms while savoring the lowered expectations. We knew that the Covid-19 situation was a dream come true for some students yet in reality, it was the exact opposite of what they need. Lori and I were concerned that this new situation would allow them to disconnect, potentially losing those social skills they had worked so hard to develop.
Tapping into Available Resources
Lori: In conjunction with our Clinician’s Corner, we continued to go into the Personal Development classes and meet with the kids. Instead of our typical lessons, we kept our time in the class informal, being mindful to not infringe on taking away too much class time. The new schedule was limited and we knew that the student’s time with their teachers was equally as important. We used these informal checks to keep our dialogue open with the students as well as using it to gauge what was on their minds, how they were feeling, and what other supports may be needed. We were very grateful that the teachers saw the importance of our check-ins and shared their precious time with us.
Julie: Now that we had our own platform to reach out, we had to figure out how it was going to work. Questions such as “Would the kids' check-in, what type of information should we post, what might go wrong?” became the focal point of our discussions.
The intent of the space was to allow for social connection and we had to be mindful of what might go awry once it was ‘open for business’.
Providing clinical support in a digital setting was uncharted waters, yet we felt very strongly that we needed to reach out. This was an opportunity to highlight the value and importance of School Social Workers and School Psychologists in a virtual space and we believed that we were the right team to lead the charge.
Now that we had a starting point and platform from which to deliver, our next task was to figure out how to engage the students and what information was most timely and relevant to meet their needs… Join us later this week for a follow-up column on SSWN to learn more about Clinicians Corner!