Social Workers Step up to Provide Crucial Support to People Affected by the Coronavirus

Social Workers Step up to Provide Crucial Support to People Affected by the Coronavirus

By Jason Kornwitz

This article originally appeared on May 4, 2020 in the Boston College School of Social Work News.

Students, faculty, and alumni have delivered food to older adults who can not leave their homes, provided teletherapy to students whose schools have closed for the rest of the academic year, and tracked down people who have been exposed to COVID-19. Photo by iStock.

John Carduff dons a cloth mask and puts on a pair of latex-free gloves to take the temperature of each resident who enters Father Bill’s & MainSpring, a homeless shelter located in Brockton, Massachusetts.

Carduff, who is scheduled to receive his master’s degree from the Boston College School of Social Work in two weeks, reminds his clients to wash their hands and minimize contact with each other to slow the spread of COVID-19.

He says the homeless shelter recently moved 60 guests into tents to give residents more space to live and sleep. But WBUR reports that over 30 percent of clients have still tested positive for the disease.

“The biggest challenge is keeping everyone safe,” says Carduff, who’s worked at the homeless shelter for the past three years. “We are low on hand sanitizer, but at this point who isn’t?”

Carduff is part of a large contingent of students, faculty, and graduates of the School of Social Work who have stepped up to provide crucial support to individuals and families whose lives have been upended by the pandemic. Their efforts include delivering food to older adults who can not leave their homes, providing teletherapy to students whose schools have closed for the rest of the academic year, and tracking down people who have been exposed to the coronavirus and helping them isolate.

“Social workers are incredibly important during this time,” says Carduff. “People, now more than ever, are looking to social programs to help get through this pandemic.”

Sophia Suarez-Friedman, a second-year student who specializes in mental health, created a program to connect people in need in Watertown, Massachusetts, with those who are able to help.

“I definitely feel like I’m doing something to help,” says Suarez-Friedman, a clinical intern at the Wayside Youth and Family Support Network in Massachusetts. “I think that I would feel lucky to have any job now, but the fact that my work is supporting people affected by the coronavirus does make it more rewarding.”Applicants fill out a form to request aid, including food, clothing, and money, and get matched with someone who’s offered to fulfill that need.


I definitely feel like I’m doing something to help. I think that I would feel lucky to have any job now, but the fact that my work is supporting people affected by the coronavirus does make it more rewarding.” – Sophia Suarez-Friedman, Wayside clinician

The World Health Organization reports that COVID-19 has infected more than 1.1 million people in the United States and killed over 61,000 others. More than 55 million students in grades K through 12 have transitioned to learning from home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, according to a tally maintained by Education Week, and at least 30 million people have filed for unemployment since the pandemic began to destroy the job market in mid-March.

COVID-19 has forced Suarez-Friedman to work online. When she’s not overseeing the mutual aid program, she’s providing teletherapy to more than half a dozen adolescents who tell her that they wish they could return to school.

Suarez-Friedman advises her clients to find activities that they can enjoy at home, whether that’s playing video games, watching Netflix, or taking hot showers. When one client told Suarez-Friedman that exercise improved her mood, Suarez-Friedman showed her a video that highlighted the mental health benefits of moving your body.

“We talk about what they’re missing and discuss the positive things they’re able to do now,” says Suarez-Friedman, who plans to graduate in two weeks and then return to Wayside Youth and Family Support Network to work full time. “I’m there for them and let them talk about what’s difficult.”

Lizzie Fipphen, a first-year student who counsels children who attend the Parker Elementary School in Billerica, Massachusetts, uses Google Meet to play games, read books, and assuage the fears of her clients.

When one child worried that his family would catch the coronavirus, Fipphen provided strategies to minimize the risk of contracting the disease.

“I said that was a very valid worry and all we can do is protect ourselves the best we can,” says Fipphen, who specializes in children, youth, and families. “If you go outside, be careful,” she told the child, “and encourage your mom to wear a mask in the grocery store.”

Fipphen, who primarily counsels children who have autism, says she changed her lesson plans to work online. She asked the children in one group therapy session to pick an object in their house and perform a show and tell. Sometimes, she says, children just need someone to listen to them. “One kid talked for the entire 30 minutes session,” she says, “and that was what he needed.”

Fipphen described herself as “devastated” when she found out that Parker Elementary School had closed for the rest of the academic year, but she acknowledges that teletherapy has reinforced her desire to work with children after she graduates in 2021.

Before the superintendent of Billerica Public Schools announced that counselors would be allowed to provide teletherapy, Fipphen created a video to connect with the children. “If this time away from school is making you feel anxious or worried or happy or sad, all of those feelings are OK and they’re all perfectly normal,” Fipphen told the children in the video. “You’re really special to me and I want you to be taking care of yourself as well as you can.”

Linda Rosa, a social worker at the Parker Elementary School who supervises Fipphen, says children miss the popular counselor. “She’s very compassionate and kind and a good advocate for kids,” says Rosa, who received her master’s degree from the Boston College School of Social Work in 1984. “I would hire her tomorrow if I could.”

Rosa says the Parker Elementary School donated laptops, food, diapers, formula, and toilet paper to families in need. She says she emails parents resources to help their children cope with anxiety caused by COVID-19 and chats with more than a dozen mom’s and dad’s every single day.

“A few parents say they’re anxious, too,” says Rosa. “I talk them off the ledge and tell them these strategies can be helpful.”

Yvonne Castañeda, a behavioral health clinician who works at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, says the coronavirus has raised the level of anxiety among Latinx clients who view the crisis as a major threat to their health, financial stability, and day-to-day lives.

Many Latinx people live in close quarters, making it hard to practice social distancing, and have high rates of underlying health conditions that could exacerbate the risks of COVID-19. The Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit thinktank, found that only 16.2 percent of Latinxs can work from home, raising their risk of becoming infected on the job.

“Anxiety levels are elevated because there is uncertainty and the situation is totally out of our control,” says Castañeda, who received her master’s degree from the School of Social Work in 2018 and now teaches as a part-time faculty member in the school. “I’ve also seen patients who were struggling with anxiety and depression prior to the coronavirus outbreak, started getting better, and now feel completely isolated.”

Castañeda advises her Latinx patients to exercise and practice deep breathing to cope with anxiety caused by the coronavirus. She suggests they use their senses to help stop panic attacks by listening to soothing sounds, say, or looking at images that elicit feelings of peace and serenity.

“I’m reminding my patients to use the coping skills they’ve learned to pull them out of an uncertain future and bring them back to the certain present,” Castañeda says.


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