Covid-19 has thrown up some tough challenges for student social workers, but it could be a chance for new opportunities.

Social Work students at the University of Sunderland are embracing the new normal by developing their communication skills, including how to build and establish relationships with the people they work with using technology.

Aimee Easterbrook-Smith, from Sunderland, started her degree in September 2019 before the coronavirus outbreak and was able to carry out physical home visits.

However, this time last year the UK entered its first lockdown and Aimee, alongside millions of other students across the country, moved to online learning.

“I did worry about what that would mean and whether I would be able to actually do social work over a camera or the phone,” the 23-year-old said.

“But the support from the University really helped me develop those communication skills even further to ensure that my practice is effective whether that’s in person, over the phone or on Whatsapp.

“I don’t think the pandemic has changed my thoughts on social work as it’s just about adapting to new ways of working and I know with the right support around me I can still make an impact on people’s lives.”

Charlotte Swainston, 28, from Darlington, also began her course before the pandemic and it was that human element that drew her to social work.

As an Apprentice, 80 per cent of Charlotte’s learning is on the job so she has found working virtually a bit of a challenge.

“We’ve just had to adapt to this way of life, and it has totally changed the way in which I’m working,” she explained.

“I have worked with children and families for more than 11 years and this is the only time where I’ve not actually been able to go and visit anyone.

“I’m not saying it’s been an easy year, but the University’s support has been second to none.

“I’m just glad we’ve had the opportunity to actually continue with the apprenticeship because I’ve really enjoyed it. We’re half-way there and we are learning, as much as it’s different, we are still doing it and getting what we need.

“We are the first cohort of social work apprentices, so it’ll be interesting in years to come to see how the apprenticeship develops from our experience.”

It comes as the University is holding an online seminar tomorrow (Wednesday, March 24th) exploring how communication in social work has changed as a result of the pandemic.

The event, ‘Social Work in Times of Change and Uncertainty’, will also look at the experience of students on placement and how the University has adapted its communication skills teaching and assessment, as well as learning for the future.

Peter Kay is Head of the School of Social Sciences at the University.

He said: “We have worked with our partner agencies within social work to ensure that, even through these Covid times, our students have had and are continuing to have meaningful and real life experiences during their placements.

“Our students will be well prepared and ready to enter their chosen profession. It has been challenging for all, but we firmly believe that our social work students are eager and enthusiastic about entering the ever-changing landscape of social work.”