Navigating Social Work Field Education during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Challenges, Benefits and Opportunities

By Dionne Frank and Shonell Enoe

Published: December 15, 2021

The overall [COVID-19] experience must serve as an impetus to continue exploring and implementing new approaches to grow our academic programmes and national University.  

Dionne Frank ✉️, Shonell Enoe, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Guyana, Turkeyen Campus.

https://doi.org/10.52377/KPZV7917 


Abstract

In March 2020,  the University of Guyana suspended face-to-face activities, requiring academic programmes and social work field education to reconfigure to virtual modalities. This paper revisits the impact of COVID-19 on social work education to examine the challenges, benefits, and opportunities to lecturers and students. Using a qualitative approach, a document analysis was conducted on lecturers’ journal entries and field notes, and 56 reflective reports submitted by students. The findings revealed self-reports of anxiety, loss of support of practice teachers, disappointment, and burnout. In spite of the challenges experienced,  the analysis revealed that the peer-substitution practice dyads allowed students to develop their interpersonal and counselling skills. Additional findings suggest that there were opportunities for lecturers and the Social Work Unit to pilot the use of information communication technologies, create a framework for virtual monitoring of students, and demonstrate their commitment to preserving the signature pedagogy of social work education. We conclude that the COVID-19 pandemic has served as an impetus for the national University to continue exploring and implementing new approaches to advance the growth of social work programmes.

Keywords: Social work education, Social work field education, Placement, Practice teachers, COVID-19 pandemic

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  1. Introduction

Approximately six weeks after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 disease a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (Patel & Jernigan, 2020), Guyana reported its first case on March 11, 2020. The proactive Transitional Management Committee (TMC), University of Guyana, instantly converted all operations into ‘work safe mode’. Critical features of ‘work safe mode’ included restricting physical contact and interaction, transitioning all administrative and academic activities to virtual modalities, and working from a secured space (University of Guyana, 2020). This temporary menu of measures subsequently evolved into a protracted mode of operation for staff and students. For the first time in history, all intra-mural Faculties and Schools converted traditional classes to online modalities (Oyedotun, 2020). While these actions were intended to protect the human resources and primary stakeholders of the University, the strict imposition of the physical distancing policy impacted education delivery. This outcome was not atypical; research has shown that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the social life and every other sector globally, especially educational institutions (Jayasuriya, 2021; Onalu, Chukwu & Okoye, 2020; Oyedotun, 2020). This article primarily focuses on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on faculty and students involved in social work field education, emphasising the challenges, benefits, opportunities, and recommendations for moving forward.

In the context of social work education, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on faculty and students involved in the signature pedagogy – field education or, as commonly known, practicum – was pronounced (Morley & Clarke, 2020). In Guyana, the Social Work Unit (SWU) withdrew all students on placement with human service organisations following the policy direction of the TMC of the University. Furthermore, human services organisations rapidly transitioned their service delivery to remote modalities – a practice which began in other jurisdictions across the globe (Morley & Clarke, 2020). The new adaptation did not account for students’ field education because of the novelty of the COVID-19 pandemic, the absence of a regulatory framework and ethical protocols, and inadequate technological resources. As a result, the Social Work Unit had to swiftly reconsider and reorganise social work field education, especially for second-year students on practicum. Transitioning from face-to-face to virtual synchronous classes on Zoom was relatively seamless. Regarding social work’s signature pedagogy, the SWU needed to redesign alternative practicum activities to replace agency-based assignments.

The data informing this article emanated from document reviews and inductive thematic analysis of the reflections of a practicum lecturer, a colleague who provided mentorship, and their assessments of second-year students’ experiences recorded in practicum reports. The primary purpose was to analyse the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on social work faculty and students involved in social work field education. Preliminary sections present an overview of social work education in Guyana, offering brief insights into its history and development, emphasising the structure of the foundational two-year programme.  Other sections evaluate the global and local impact of the COVID-19 pandemic ascertained through document reviews, and provide recommendations for further developing and sustaining the social work’s signature pedagogy at the University. It is anticipated that this contribution will augment indigenous social work scholarship.

 

  1. Social Work Education in Guyana

 Approximately twenty-eight years after the evolution of professional social work in Guyana, the University of Guyana, with support from the United Nations Development Fund, introduced social work education in 1971 (Odle-Ali, 1995). The two-year Diploma in Social Work (now the Associate of Social Science – Social Work) directly responded to the national need for local training for social welfare workers. As Guyana transformed its political ideology from cooperative socialism to neoliberalism in the mid-1980s, the impact of the austerity Economic Recovery Programme (ERP) highlighted the need for advanced social work training. Consequently, a second two-year undergraduate programme was introduced in 1988. Combining the two-year diploma and the two-year degree is a hybrid approach to the Bachelor of Social Science (Social Work). The B. Soc. Sc. (Social Work) was a pragmatic outcome of an international partnership with the University of Guyana, the Canadian International Agency for Development, and Dalhousie University. In corresponding fashion to the introduction of the B. Soc. Sc. (S. W.), the Master of Social Work (MSW) commenced in 2017. This collaboration was a partnership among the University of Guyana, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and York University.

Initially, the diploma programme targeted public servants in government agencies (Olde-Ali, 1995). Early cohorts, therefore, consisted of experienced paraprofessionals performing the functions of schools’ welfare, social welfare, probation and community development officers. They brought their lived realities of the practice environment to the classroom and graduated with the knowledge-based, theoretical underpinnings, values, principles, and ethics of social work. The average age of social work cohorts dropped significantly with the advent of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) phenomenon, the popularity of peer education, and a paradigm shift in Guyanese’s perspectives of psychosocial support. This corresponded with the resurfacing and evolution of the growing number of non-governmental organisations in the neoliberal climate in the late 1990s to provide human services.

The structure of the two-year programme conformed with the recommendations in the Report on the Employment and Training of Social Workers (known as the Younghusband Report). The Younghusband Report is a product of Carnegie United Kingdom Trust of Great Britain – Guyana’s former colonial governor. It served as the organisation’s blueprint and guided the systematic provision of social work training in the post World War 11 era. It is the foundation of many social work academic and professional training (Burt, 2018).

The two-year social work curriculum exposed social work students to nine months of theory and six months of practice (Younghusband, 1947). They University of Guyana’s Diploma and Associate programmes conform with this recommendation. In the first three semesters students learn social work principles, methods and theories, and other mandatory content encompassing economics, human development, social structures, social policy and social administration, criminology, and psychology. In the fourth semester (January – May), students are assigned to a human services organisation for practicum and work under the supervision of practice teachers or field educators.

 

Social Work Field Education

According to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE, 2015),

Field education is the signature pedagogy of social work… to integrate the theoretical and conceptual contribution of the classroom with the practical world of the practice setting. It is a fundamental precept of social work education that the two interrelated components of curriculum—classroom and field—are of equal importance within the curriculum, and each contributes to the development of the requisite competencies of professional practice. Field education is systematically designed, supervised, coordinated, and evaluated based on criteria. (p. 12)

Inherent in CSWE’s definition of field education mentioned above is the implied objectives of the signature pedagogy (practicum). That is the obligation for social work programmes to create experiential learning opportunities for students to apply the theoretical and conceptual knowledge to real-life scenarios in the practice environment. In the case of the University of Guyana Social Work programmes, the signature pedagogy is implemented using diverse strategies.

Social work students participate in observational visits to penal institutions and social services agencies from the first semester. These experiential learning opportunities culminate with their placements in human services organisations, where they accumulate 200 hours working under the supervision of a practice teacher or field educator. Additionally, the Practicum Manual serves as the contract among the SWU, students and practice teachers (Henry, 2015). It reflects the standards of the University of Guyana’s social work programme and outlines the competencies students must demonstrate and further develop during their placement. Practice teachers use the Practicum Manual to monitor and evaluate students’ application of their theoretical and conceptual knowledge while assuming the roles of practitioners working with authentic cases.  Practice teachers also serve as mentors and guide students accordingly as new trainees. On completion, both the practice teacher and the student submit reports to the Social Work Unit for evaluation.

In contrast to other social work programmes, there is no independent infrastructure and director responsible for managing field education. Instead, social work faculty assigned to the respective courses perform the related functions. For example, they negotiate practica assignments with stakeholders, orient and train practice teachers, conduct monitoring and evaluation visits twice per semester for an average of 60 students, consult with practice teachers on their progress, and grade student reports.

 

Global Impact of COVID-19 on Social Work Field Education

The COVID-19 pandemic affected the implementation of field education for many Schools of Social Work. At the onset, the Council of Social Work Education (2020) surveyed 197 Social Work Deans and Program Directors and 235 Field Directors over three days. Results showed that 41.1% of Deans and Program Directors and 46.8% of Field Directors allowed students to modify their placement work in all placement settings. Additionally, they developed alternative field placement activities (Table 1).

 

Table 1

Alternative Field Placement Activities

Alternative Practica Activities Percentage (%)
  Deans and Program Directors Field Directors
Telephone arrangement with agencies 84.4 72.3
Work on crisis response policies, procedures, notifications, and education 79.3 74.5
Client case/paperwork on a secure server 59.3 51.5
Ability to call into meetings 83.0 77.0
Work on projects from home 100.0 88.9
Engage in professional development activities 88.1 79.6
Meet virtually with their field instructor 98.5 87.2

Source: CSWE (2020)

Generally, the adoption of alternative placement activities, as reflected in Table 1, solidifies the importance of the signatory pedagogy of social work education. Notwithstanding the enactment of national and institutional regulations requiring physical distancing to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, social work programmes were obligated to continue field education.

Local Impact of COVID-19 on Social Work Field Education

At the beginning of the pandemic, navigating the disruption seemed daunting for faculty and students. Firstly, the lack of knowledge of the COVID-19 disease, fear, and uncertainty of the protracted state of physical distancing contributed to anxiety. Secondly, it was the first time the SWU attempted to integrate information and communications technology (ICT) in field education. Poor internet services experienced regularly was, therefore, a critical factor that the SWU needed to consider when deciding on alternative practicum approaches. Thirdly, the cohort of students on placement was two times larger than the average of other social work programmes in the Anglophone Caribbean and beyond. Fourthly, practice teachers were no longer available to play the instrumental role of monitoring and evaluating students’ application of their theoretical and conceptual knowledge in a natural environment. Fifthly, there was no specialised practicum unit to independently redesign, reorganise or develop alternatives to the second-year agency-based practicum. This contextual background, therefore, served as the impetus for us to reflect on how lecturers and students navigated the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on social work field education at the University of Guyana.

 

  1. Methodology

A qualitative approach was used for this body of work. Specifically, we embraced a document review design, applying reflexivity to analyse the content of existing global and indigenous literature,  our journal notes, and the reflective reports submitted by our students. According to Creswell and Creswell (2018), reflexivity in qualitative research allows writers and researchers to reflect on their role and experiences shaping their interpretations and advancing meanings they ascribe to data. In this case, we wanted to determine the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and share our experiences navigating them to ensure that the field education component of the social work undergraduate programme was not compromised. Thus, three (3) themes were inductively developed and used to guide our review of the secondary data; the sources of which are detailed in the proceeding paragraphs.

The substantive content of our findings reflects inductive themes; challenges, benefits, and opportunities, and deductive sub-themes. Data to inform the interpretations and perspectives were primarily gathered from two secondary sources, including the reflections of the lecturer with responsibility for agency-based practicum, and a former administrative staff who continues to provide academic mentorship; along with students’ reflective reports.

Reflections of the lecturer and mentor

Our journal entries and formal and informal notes were among the primary documents reviewed. We commenced by reviewing the earlier journal entries and notes we compiled as we attempted to deconstruct the issues we faced in brainstorming and redesigning alternative strategies for the undergraduate practicum. Written accounts that we interpreted to reflect the challenges faced, benefits derived, and opportunities presented, were highlighted and analysed. We then proceeded to examine the reflective reports submitted by students.

Review of Students Reflective Reports

Each student was required to submit a reflective report on completing their practicum assignment. Fifty-six (56) of 66 students’ reflective reports were available during our document review for scrutiny. Similar to our approach in reviewing our journal entries and notes, we examined the 56 reflective reports to decipher students’ experiences that were concurrent and interpreted as challenges, benefits, and opportunities.

 

  1. Presentation and Analysis of Findings

Our presentation of findings primarily focuses on the impact of COVID-19 on the University of Guyana’s Social Work faculty and students during field education. We discussed these under thematic sub-headings accounting for the various challenges encountered by lecturers and students, the benefits derived from the alternative practicum strategies, and the opportunities presented to lecturers to navigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on social work field education.  

4.1 Challenges

In an attempt to determine how the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on social work field education was successfully navigated by social work faculty and students, we reviewed the documents to understand the challenges encountered. These are identified and explained subsequently.

Loss of support of practice teachers 

As highlighted earlier, practice teachers are an important stakeholder group in social work field education management. Therefore, their unavailability was one of the most profound impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on social work field education in Guyana. This impact manifested in feelings of loss and frustration for the practicum lecturer. This she documented by simply stating the following:

I was left at a loss knowing I no longer had the support of the practice teachers. They are of tremendous assistance supervising students within the human services agencies. I was also affected by the volume of emails and calls from students who were grieving their withdrawal from practicum.

Feelings of Disappointment

For many social work students, the pinnacle of their study programme is the experiential learning acquired through their agency-based placement. Thus, they nurture the expectation of their tenure in the social work practice environment. An analysis of their reflective reports revealed that several students were highly disappointed by their withdrawal from the human services organisations.

In reflecting on her experiences, Student #2 wrote,[M]y expectations were to be assigned a placement at one of the Human Services agencies, working with a supervisor or field teacher … I was disappointed”. Noteworthy, the findings revealed that Student #2 was not the only one with such experiences. Our interpretation of Student #32’s narrative, which stated that “I wanted to continue at the actual agency and do the work, but instead, I had to stay home because of the COVID 19 situation”, also supported this outcome. The preceding quote infers the student’s feelings of disappointment after her withdrawal from the agency-based practicum.  

Burnout

Statements of saturation, a sense of being overwhelmed and burnout were also discovered in the analysis of students’ reflective reports. Student #4’s reflective report explicitly captured such experiences:

[I] became burned out because I have my family to care for, I have work, due to covid 19 [sic] school closed, and my daughter now have [sic] online classes where I became a teacher, I had my job to go to and also my online classes from the University of Guyana where I would be given assignments and work. It was not just only the practicum.

 Feelings of Anxiety

Both lecturers and students experienced varying forms of self-reported anxiety in their reflection notes and reports, respectively. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on lecturers and students was not unfounded. It is a global psychological impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, brought on by physical distancing and other stressors (World Health Organisation, 2020). Further, anxiety during field education placement is not a new challenge for students. According to Wayne, Raskin and Bogo (2010), anxiety is a necessary experience of the signatory pedagogy and fosters positive adaptive behaviours. However, the problem is more pronounced when group support is absent, as was the case because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Student #1, the anxiety experienced manifested in fears of not completing the course, leading her to note that “[A]t first, … thought that COVID-19 was going to prevent me from completing this assignment”. This reported experience is also synonymous with the fear brought on by the pandemic for people all across the world.

 

4.2 Benefits

Undoubtedly, physical distancing restrictions presented challenges. However, there were also benefits for students and opportunities for faculty in the Social Work Unit. Both lecturers and students overcame their initial negative emotions, whether through the development of coping mechanisms or with medical or social support. This reality reflects human resiliency in a crisis, a commendable professional and life skill for helping professionals’ effectiveness in practice. Below are selected benefits specific to the helping relationships reported by students:

 Refinement of interpersonal and counselling skills

Based on students’ reflection reports, many benefitted from the opportunity to refine their interpersonal and counselling skills. Common themes included active listening, emotional control of facial expressions and other non-verbal cues, and showing empathy. These findings also suggest experiences of professional growth during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 Understanding the implications of boundaries in helping relationships

The refinement of skills also extended to students’ understanding of boundaries in helping relationships. According to Student #42:

[s]ome sessions left me with mixed emotions especially when the client discussed her marriage… Remembering that this is a therapeutic relationship, it is imperative to maintain boundaries to maintain a healthy relationship; I took a deep breath then reminded myself that the helping profession is one of the most trusted professions. Therefore, laws and ethical codes provide guidelines for acceptable professional practices.

 What this student’s reflection communicates is her inherent struggles to control her emotions while maintaining professional boundaries. The instilled values of the profession served as the student’s internal control mechanism, allowing her to reflect on the purpose of ethical codes, thus influencing her understanding of the implications to social work practice.

 Learning to manage dual relations

Many students encountered minimal challenges working in their peer-substitution dyads. Conversely, some found that peers took the relationship for granted. This may be a negative consequence on the surface, but some students converted it to a benefit. According to Student #46, “in working with friends, you can be taken for granted, or they won’t even take you seriously because of the relationship you share with them. I had to reconstruct many of my objectives, but it was necessary to manage the dual relationship”.

 Peer social support

In addition to collaborating for the alternative practicum activity, which we coined as the peer-substitution practice dyads (discussed under opportunities), students benefitted from the social support of their peers. They served as sources of encouragement during the pandemic, motivating each other to persevere. It is an experience best described by Student #17, who noted:

I had the experience of losing almost all my information due to a technical difficulty with the Guyana Power and Light. At [this] point, I wanted to give up; sleepless nights, not being able to eat, experiencing brain freeze was my experience during this time. With an understanding lecturer, my time was extended, I was a bit motivated. Every other day my peers would check in; how are you? How are you going? As I progressed and completed one task, I felt like I was moving a mountain. Typing every day, sometimes up until 3:00am, I finally did it. This was a ride, but I like [sic] the journey. I accomplish some things I never imagine [sic] and for that I’m grateful.

 

 4.3 Opportunities

In contrast to the lecturer and mentor’s journal entries and notes, no recorded account in the students’ reflective reports registered any data that could be interpreted as opportunities.

Navigating social work field education during the COVID-19 pandemic also created opportunities of varying dimensions for the practicum lecturer, mentor and the Social Work Unit. As we reflected on our journal entries and notes, the alternative practicum activities we conceptualised, implemented, and coined as the peer-substitution practice dyad is one of our significant discoveries. We begin this section by first sharing the embraced thought process, which led to the alternative practicum activity we developed.

Alternative Practicum Activity – Peer-Substitution Practice Dyads (PSPD)

Since the cornerstone of social work education involves critically intertwined active engagement and reflective practice (Wayne et al., 2010), there was no consideration to eliminate field education.  Moreover, the Associate of Social Science (Social Work) cohort on agency-based placement was in the final semester of the programme, working to fulfil the programme’s requirements. Thus, the reality confronting lecturers underpinned the drive to transform the challenges into opportunities and pilot alternative practicum activities. At this juncture, the constant engagement between the practicum lecturer and the mentor proved advantageous and supported informal discussions with departmental colleagues to determine alternative strategies. In addition, as a member of several international professional associations, the mentor was able to identify resources to guide field education and provide moral and technical support to the practicum lecturer.

Unlike other jurisdictions, there is no regulatory body monitoring the delivery of social work education in Guyana; neither is the SWU currently affiliated with any regional or international bodies. Therefore, compliance with the standards for social work education was an obligation of practicum lecturers’ commitment to the profession. Their options for determining alternative placement activities were therefore based on their professional assessments. A rapid evaluation of several social work education standards and policies revealed that substituting peers as clients will allow students to gain the required competencies by working virtually in dyads. This alternative strategy also recreated a conducive environment and tested their application of the theoretical and conceptual knowledge with information and communication technologies.

In streamlining the nuances of the new creation – the peer-substitution practice dyads – students’ accountability in the absence of practice teachers was a question encountered. The resolution resulted in the development of protocols and reporting templates. Additionally, the practicum lecturer assigned students to most dyads, while few resulted from self-placement. Reflections suggest that the method was successful, albeit with minor glitches. This was determined through students’ successful completion of the practicum and their self-reports of learning new skills (e.g. counselling and interpersonal) during the implementation of the alternative strategy. Interestingly, other Schools of Social Work developed similar alternative activities, certifying the compatibility of our local approach.

Implementing the innovative peer-substitution practice dyads was not the only opportunity for the Social Work Unit and its academic faculty. Other opportunities derived from navigating the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic also included, but were not limited to, the following:

  • Piloting ICT integration in field education

Compulsory integration of ICT in field education was successful, certifying its applicability. It is potentially a solution to the Unit’s struggle to identify placement opportunities for the large enrollment of students.

  • Building a framework for virtual monitoring and evaluation of students

The removal of practice teachers necessitated creating innovative methods to supervise practica virtually. Consequently, this new framework complemented the use of the Practicum Manual.

  • Demonstrating commitment to preserving the signatory pedagogy of social work

The commitment and dedication to reconfiguring field education to transition to virtual modalities showed the synergy among social work faculty and their adaptability to a changing work environment.

 

  1. Moving Forward: Recommendations

Navigating social work field education during the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the need to redesign the Social Work Unit’s approach to the management of practica. In addition, the proliferation of programmes, including a postgraduate programme with a capstone practicum component, means the time has come for expansion. This reality forms the basis of the following recommendations:

Creation of a Practicum Unit

Global educational and accreditation standards for social work programmes require establishing a semi-autonomous practicum unit. Moreover, as the economy expands from the oil and gas rewards and expatriate and migrant populations increase, new social phenomena will emerge and result in larger social work programmes. Proactive preparation will therefore benefit the University and by extension the nation.

Appointment of Practicum Coordinator

The Global Standards for the Education and Training of Social Work Profession recommends appointing a qualified and experienced academic supervisor for practicum. The current developmental stage of the local social work programmes demands such an appointment.

Integration of Technology in Counselling Courses

Virtual and tele-counselling are contemporary strategies for helping clients. The successful piloting of the peer-substitution practice dyads supports this approach.

Continuity Plan

Documentation and strategic planning are critical to the sustainability of any programme or initiative. Therefore, the Social Work Unit must spare no resources to develop a continuity plan.

 

  1. Conclusion

 In a synopsis, the growth of social work education in Guyana has been incremental since its introduction in 1971, with the field education component remaining the signature pedagogy. Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the delivery of programmes at the University of Guyana, as with other sectors. Simultaneously, the crisis posed numerous challenges, especially for faculty and students social work field education, and resulted in benefits and opportunities as documented in this article. Adapting and progressing with social work programmes using technology and alternative peer-substitution practice dyads reflect the resiliency needed to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. However, since there are no benefits to the relaxation of standards, the overall experience must serve as an impetus to continue exploring and implementing new approaches to grow our academic programmes and national University.  

 

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