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Living under a state of health emergency in Pavia, Italy Stefano Annovazzi Lodi, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
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Riccardo Guidi,
Department of Political Science, University of Pisa, Italy

Social Work “Practice Education” in a Time of Pandemic: Restrictions, Challenges, and Emerging Innovations in Italy

Italy: a country dramatically hit by the pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on Italy. In February 2020, the northern regions of this country were the epicenter of the virus outbreak in Europe and since then almost 4.5 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 with over 128,000 deaths have been counted. The measures aimed at reducing the risks of virus transmission have also been strict. From March to May 2020 a radical lockdown was ordered at national level. Restrictive measures were reduced in summer 2020, but reinforced again from Autumn 2020, and mainly on a regional and weekly basis. Significant limitations are still in force in Italy at the moment of writing (August 2021) – e.g., face masks are mandatory indoors, some indoor activities are still forbidden. Since January 2020, Italy has been living under a state of “health emergency”.

The serious and differentiated impact of the pandemic on University activities

The educational sector, from kindergartens/nurseries to universities, has been so heavily affected by the Covid-related measures that recent analyses have shown evidence of an upcoming “education crisis” (Blaskó et al., 2021). In Spring 2020, as a response to the schools shutting down, almost all Italian universities suddenly converted their in-person activities to remote ones. Later on, the scenario became highly fragmented – according to the wide autonomy bestowed on the regional governments and individual universities. The situation could vary in time and space on a weekly basis, according to the estimated risk level for each region. Beyond this, all universities had to consider other very heterogeneous and situational features – such as physical space availability, staff and students’ preferences, risk sustainability for their establishment, students’ rights – in order to develop their own coping strategies after Spring 2020.

As a result, the real impact of the health emergency on Italian universities and students has been generally strong but differentiated. An exploratory research based on a content analysis of the websites of the Italian Social Work (SW) Programs shows that most universities have adopted a blended or dual strategy. They unpacked their institutional activities – e.g., lessons, dissertations, or tutoring – according to the different potential risks of virus transmission and profiled the students mainly according to the year of enrollment (1st year students vs. the others). Then they associated each activity and student profile to an in-person or in-remote mode. In-person activities required the usual precautionary measures – face masks, distancing in the rooms among other measures – and sometimes special regulations such as rotating students and booking lessons (e.g., the universities in Rome). Other universities, like Pisa, were more radical and kept the in-remote mode as standard for almost all activities up to August 2021, with massive consequences for the academic staff, the students, and the city.

Adaptations of the “practice education” activities to the pandemic: emerging experimentations…

Italian Social Work Programs have largely followed university-level regulations so far. Although robust evidence is lacking, after the initial disorientation, the switch to remote lessons seems to have been relatively comfortable for students and lecturers. Nevertheless, the unequal distribution of digital skills and devices among the areas of the country, the students, and the lecturers have been critical and the limitations of persistent working from home have been especially heavy for people living in limited spaces.

Potentially “practice education” (IASSW-IFSW 2020: 13) has been mostly affected by educational losses. Providing students with practical skills, which usually require face-to-face and field activities, in 2020/2021 has been a peculiar and radical challenge for Social Workeducation. Unlike in the past, many students in the last 18 months have risked not being able to learn crucial technical and relational skills because of the restricted in-person learning and practice opportunities, which might limit their future employability and competencies to help users. However, this risk has not been equally shared. Although the practice education projects of almost all students have been somehow affected by the restrictions, the learning opportunities given to Italian students have been highly unequal. This is due to macro, meso and micro factors such as the different spread of the contagion across the country, the diverse university regulations, and the specific choices made by local social work organizations and students.

The Italian Social Work Programs have not been passive. The waiting strategy – that is no changes up to the end of the pandemic – has not been a realistic option for anyone because of the length and intensity of the health emergency and the curricular nature of practice education in Italian Social Work Programs. In Italy, as a matter of fact, completing the internship is an essential condition for the students’ graduation and for their registration as professional social workers (assistenti sociali).

Lacking top-down initiatives at national level, the Italian Social Work Programs have adopted bottom-up and weakly-coordinated measures to cope with the difficulties. The reduction of hours required for the completion of the internships (-20%/-60%), different schedules, and a revision of the collaboration with local social work organizations were applied by almost all Social Workprograms. While these measures were enough for some social work programs, like the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, other universities designed unprecedented initiatives for those students who were unable to be physically hosted in a Social Work organization. In some cases these experiments were moderate, while some Social Work programs radically innovated the modalities of practice education.

In most social work programs, the students were allowed to develop their internships remotely from home because this largely corresponded to their supervisors’ work modality from Spring 2020 to Spring 2021. Those remote internships kept the basic features of a conventional Social Work internship (Bogo and Vayda, 1998), but the physical distance from the supervisors, users, and colleagues probably limited their learning opportunities. A serious problem was that several social work organizations did not allow the students to develop remote internships for the full amount of the scheduled hours. To cope with this, a number of Social Work Programs experimented with “alternative” methods to those of conventional social work internships.

The University of Milano Bicocca devised a targeted program (Rossi and Maci, 2021). Webinars held by expert social workers were proposed to all students. Web-based platforms for interacting with field instructors and clients were designed for those students who still had the support of a field instructor. Online activities for simulating social work practice were devoted to students whose field instructor became unavailable. Finally, all students had the chance to analyze the reactions to Covid-19 promoted by social work organizations at local level.

The University of Roma Tre created an original “extended learning environment” (Accorinti et al., 2021: 86) for the students. Here the academic tutors met the students online and supported them in the re-elaboration of short physical internships through conventional and artistic languages. The University of Turin modified the activities and duration of internships. It allowed the students to observe this process of changing to show them how social workers cope with unpredicted difficulties such as a pandemic. The academic tutors intensified the support for the students’ reflectivity through individual interviews, and group and writing activities. As a result, the relations between the students and the academic tutors were significantly strengthened with new learning opportunities for both (Fornero et al., 2021). The University of Verona originally filled the gaps in curricular internships through narrative laboratories via Zoom. Here the students represented and commented on the stories of potential users and the academic tutors facilitated the peer-to-peer learning process (Dalla Chiara, 2021).

The University of Sassari (Casula, 2021) followed two directions. First, it worked to make their remote internships in Social Workorganizations highly detailed and tailored to students’ and supervisors’ profiles and preferences. As a result, the role of the supervisors was enhanced, and the individual supervision of the students was strengthened. Secondly, the students could count on unprecedented collective supervision opportunities through the “Experimental Laboratories” which specifically trained them for active listening and professional writing in social work.

Jointly with the Regional Council of the assistenti sociali, the University of Calabria provided the MA students with a four-step-ICT-based internship: (1) Introductory workshop, (2) Group work about specific topics of Social Workpractice on the basis of the analysis of literature, institutional sources, and case studies, (3) Group project work writing, and (4) Evaluation (Licursi and Marcello, 2021).

A ground-breaking experiment was co-created by the three Tuscan Universities (Firenze, Pisa, Siena) and the Regional Council of the assistenti sociali. Unlike in the pre-pandemic scenario, they adopted a multi-scalar strategy. At regional level they designed some basic activities for the students with no internship opportunities. Later on, these activities were locally embedded in specific learning processes by each University, according to the specific characteristics of their social work programs, local contexts, and students. More than 300 BA students and 100 Tuscan assistenti sociali were involved in the learning processes in 2020/2021. Although each in their own way, the three Universities provided the students with a 5-step path: (1) Preparation and kick-off meeting; (2) Practice-based video lessons recorded by the assistenti sociali; (3) Online collective supervision in small groups on specific social work topics provided by the assistenti sociali on a weekly basis; (4) Final elaboration, and (5) Discussion of the contents with the academic staff (Guidi et al., 2021).

…And enduring innovations?

These experimentations have clear limitations, but they could also be somewhat inspiring for the future of social work education. On the one hand, the ICT-based activities carried out by the Italian universities could not give the students full access to the relational physical environment (users, professionals, organizations) where social work practice is usually learned. This probably deprived the students of experiencing some crucial aspects of social work practice such as the management of emotions. The risk to having a generation of social work students (and future social workers) with no clear idea about what social work practice in context means is real, even if the activities of the Italian universities were remarkable.

On the other hand, the above-mentioned experiments gave the universities (and sometimes the Regional Councils of the assistenti sociali) the chance to escape from the routine and to reconsider “practice education” beyond the usual paths. The need to shape “alternative” internships pushed the academic staff to re-design the learning processes and improve the matching between students and supervisors. In several cases, this has also implied giving the students an unprecedented role as co-producers of the learning outcomes and put the supervisors at the core of the learning process. Interestingly, the reduction in the hours spent by the interns in the social work organizations was generally balanced by the Social Work Programs through new activities which actively encouraged students to become reflective. In the online group work a student could develop her/his own analyses, propose solutions to simulated case-studies and potentially make mistakes with no other consequences than for her/his own learning. This has significantly helped students not to reduce their practice education to the mere emulation of expert social workers.

Three features of this experimentation seem potentially long-lasting. Firstly, the harsh challenges of “practice education” in a time of pandemic renewed the collaboration between its actors. In particular, it helped the relations between academic and professional actors (Fargion et al., 2020), as well as those between different universities, and between students, supervisors, and academic staff at a micro-level. Secondly, some experimental activities during the pandemic (e.g. Sassari laboratories) have recently been adjusted and repurposed for different students in the classes (Casula, 2021). Thirdly, the experimentation has highlighted the limits of standard internships and encouraged institutional entrepreneurship. As a consequence, innovators now have wider opportunities to act to improve social work education.


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