What Does a Pandemic Look Like for a School Social Worker?
by Sheryl Kaskowitz
A holistic approach to student support at Making Waves Academy
“It’s challenging, since I’m used to being on campus with my door open for students,” Making Waves Academy (MWA)’s Rachel Navarro says about her work during COVID-19, “but my focus continues to be on the safety of our students and families.” Her colleague Danilo Garcia notes that the need for physical distancing has created “a sense of isolation and disconnect among students, as well as families’ shifting needs. We are working to navigate this reality ourselves while we offer supports to accommodate it.”
Even before COVID-19, MWA’s in-house social workers—Ms. Navarro working with high school students and Mr. Garcia with middle schoolers—provided a wide variety of services across the community. On any given day, their work included meeting one-on-one with students, collaborating with teachers and providing professional development, offering parent trainings and support, connecting students and families with outside social services, or dealing with crisis situations that required immediate intervention.
Many families in the MWA community have experienced historical or acute trauma. With a school population that is 98% students of color and 86% from socioeconomically disadvantaged households, most students and families have endured the systemic trauma of living in poverty and battling racism. And in the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year alone, MWA responded to over 100 incidents of acute trauma, including grief, self–harm, potential bullying, violence, abuse, or rape. “A lot of work is needed to address that trauma and what it looks like in the classroom,” Ms. Navarro explains. “We know that trauma can weigh on students and make them unable to focus or process emotions.” In his work with younger students, Mr. Garcia says a primary goal is to help “strengthen coping strategies that students can use now and build on in the future.”
We are working to navigate the reality of COVID-19 ourselves while we offer supports to accommodate it.Danilo Garcia, School Social Worker
Of course, MWA families are now facing additional struggles as a result of COVID-19, including food insecurity, financial hardships, illness, and the stress of navigating the illness in intergenerational households. Both social workers have seen an increase in the number of families needing to be connected to outside resources for food, housing, and clothing. The team has ramped up their crisis protocols, which now include situations that a teacher might witness over distance learning, and they continue to share crisis–hotline information with teachers, students, and parents. Ms. Navarro has seen more high school students who now need to work to support their families during school hours, resulting in more missed classes. Some students are also expected to care for younger siblings, especially when parents are working outside the home.
For one middle schooler who was struggling with motivation to engage in online learning, Mr. Garcia made sure the student understood that “academic rigor is part of who we are, but we also care about you.” As he explained, “I’m always looking at how I can build relationships with students so that they feel supported.” Mr. Garcia believes it is necessary to find opportunities to make connections, noting that “the academic piece will connect to that sense of belonging.”
MWA’s Senior Dean of Students Eric Mingo, who works closely with the social workers, adds that the support they offer to parents is particularly important right now: “We need to ask, ‘What are your values and your hopes for your child?’ And then we need to work to connect that to MWA’s values so that we can all support this student.” Before COVID-19, social workers’ family engagement was more prevalent among middle school students, since older students usually have more independence from their families and would often seek out support from Ms. Navarro on their own. Now, with the new challenges created by the coronavirus and remote learning, Ms. Navarro says she is doing more family engagement and providing structures to support students in the home: “Parents are really struggling right now, and I am offering more parent workshops and seeing families who wouldn’t usually be accessing these supports. So maybe one small upside right now is that we’re seeing an increase in family engagement.” Mr. Mingo adds that this includes talking to both parents: “I’m getting calls from mothers asking us to talk to their husbands to make sure they are both on board and aligned in their approach to supporting their child.”
A lot of work is needed to address trauma and what it looks like in the classroom. We know that trauma can weigh on students and make them unable to focus or process emotions.Rachel Navarro, School Social Worker
MWA’s social workers also collaborate closely with teachers to offer strategies to support their students. At all levels, teachers are taught the American Psychiatric Association’s “Notice. Talk. Act.” protocol to identify warning signs in their students and connect them with support. Social workers also provide professional development to teachers around social-emotional strategies and mindfulness techniques that can help their students with self-regulation and self-awareness. Before the transition to remote learning last spring, Mr. Garcia worked with teachers to create “calm corners” in classrooms in order to give younger students “the physical space to build self-reflection and self-awareness skills.” During remote learning, social workers have also provided professional development related to self-care and stress management to help teachers themselves manage the stress of working while also taking care of family members and coping with the pandemic.
The work of these social workers represents just one facet of MWA’s Center for Holistic Support Services, a collaborative network of staff and mental health professionals that also provides clinical psychological support, restorative justice practices, and social-emotional learning programs. Founded in the spring of 2020, the Center focuses on strengthening social-emotional and psychological well-being as students work toward academic success. In describing the Center’s goals, Director of Holistic Support Brandon Greene says, “We are here to let students know that whatever they have going on in their own lives, we’re in it together. If obstacles come up and adversity arises, our students are getting the support they need to achieve whatever life dream they can imagine.” On a practical level, Ms. Navarro notes that “working so closely together means we are able to share information and come up with a holistic plan for students and families.” With pride, Mr. Garcia says, “This is what a holistic school looks like.”
We are here to let students know that whatever they have going on in their own lives, we’re in it together. If obstacles come up and adversity arises, our students are getting the support they need.Brandon Greene, Director of Holistic Support Services
MWA has always recognized the importance of nurturing students’ mental health in addition to their academic potential. The Academy hired its first on-site social worker eight years ago and added an additional position in the past three years to meet growing demand for their services. And since its inception in 2007, MWA has also worked with Frugé Psychological Associates (FPA) to provide students with clinical mental health services as well as assessments and diagnoses. In fact, FPA provided mental health services at the Making Waves afterschool program that existed years before the Academy, indicating a deep, institutional commitment to students’ holistic well-being.
The collaborative support offered by the Center makes MWA unique, as does the availability of in-house social workers. According to an ACLU report, more than 70% of public schools nationwide reported having no social workers serving their students, and in California schools the average student-to-social worker ratio was more than 6,000 to 1. Mr. Garcia notes, “In other places, students are on waiting lists or their needs go under the radar. Here, we don’t want any student to fly under the radar.”
Even in the face of historical trauma and the added hardships of COVID-19, MWA’s social workers remain hopeful. Mr. Garcia explains that for both students and families, “We want them to know that we recognize we are in challenging times. Let’s celebrate the wins and build on that.” Ms. Navarro feels inspired by her students, noting, “Even with all the needs right now, there is resiliency. The kids are awesome and doing the best that they can.” As an example of this strength, Mr. Mingo points to a current fifth grader who was recently injured and lost family members in a car accident but is ready to get back to school and engage: “When I think about our students, I think about how we need to be there for our community. Our community wants to show up, so we need to show up for them.”
We need to be there for our community. Our community wants to show up, so we need to show up for them.Eric Mingo, Senior Dean of Students