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Perseverance in the Pandemic: BCSD social workers tackle truancy, socio-emotional health


(BCSD video by Dan Michener - michenerd@bcsdschools.net)

 


Published Friday, November 5, 2021

It is a hard enough job as it is without a pandemic.

Berkeley County School District has a team of about a dozen social workers who do a lot for students and families: they organize group counseling, provide resources to parents, conduct home visits, tackle dropout prevention and more. Each school in the district is assigned a social worker.

Maggie Infinger and Dominique Ford are two members of the social work team in BCSD, and they recently shed some light on what they have been dealing with since March 2020 – and what they hope to accomplish this year to further support BCSD’s families.

Social workers provide families with whatever resources they may need, and navigating through a pandemic “has been absolutely crazy, for lack of a better word,” Infinger said.

 

Just being helpful

Infinger started in the district during the 2019-2020 school year. Her social working background extends 18 years; she previously worked in the medical field as an emergency room social worker handling crisis prevention.

Despite previously working in the medical field, Infinger said she has always wanted to work in schools. She had seen children in psychiatric facilities and tough situations at home and thought she could make a bigger impact with children by being in the school environment.

“I got into social work…just to be helpful,” she said. “I was starting my career with adults, and I felt like being more impactful with kids would be helpful to start the process of providing support.”

Ford initially studied psychology in college and during the summer would intern with the Carolina Youth Development Center. Working with the children made a big impact on her and she ended up switching her major to social work.

Ford is in her fourth year with BCSD and has been a social worker for a total of eight years. Prior to BCSD she worked for the Department of Social Services as an investigative worker, and before that she worked with Charleston County First Steps.

When she became a mom herself, working long hours with DSS became more of a struggle, which led to Ford joining BCSD’s social work team.

“It’s very different from anything I’ve ever done,” she said. “I think being that link between the school, the community and the students and their families is just a perfect little mesh for me.”

BCSD’s social workers are all assigned to multiple schools; Infinger covers all three Sangaree schools plus Devon Forest Elementary, and Ford covers all three Philip Simmons schools plus Cainhoy Elementary and Daniel Island School.

“We do pretty much all of what a social worker encompasses – linking to resources, providing support, mental health support…we provide communication between families and schools,” Infinger said. “We help bridge gaps in services that may be missing.”

Infinger said a lot of the district social workers handle both attendance/truancy and socio-emotional learning, though now the social work team is starting to split those jobs up so they can better direct their focus on one or the other.

Infinger is currently a socio-emotional social worker. Last summer the district’s social workers teamed up with the school resource officers (SROs) for special training in restorative practices, which encourage digging into underlying factors that could contribute to a child’s behavior if they are acting out at school. Infinger said they are currently trying to be very impactful with the restorative practices and intervention, so social workers have been busy passing such training onto the teachers.

“Restorative practices is the basic of humanity – it’s literally building the community,” she said. “It’s making those relationships happen.”

Ford still covers both truancy and socio-emotional social work, and said there really is no “normal” day for a social worker. They go to different schools every day, and Ford stays busy checking in with principals, guidance counselors and especially attendance clerks to see if they need additional support from her.

Since social workers prefer face-to-face interaction with students, the pandemic has made things a lot harder.

 “In social work, that personal interaction is something that we’re really big on, so having to take that away while we were in the pandemic when schools shut down made things really hard,” Ford said.

 

Myriad of obstacles

Infinger described this past year as being “one of the most challenging years I’ve had in social work”, and that the pandemic has been “trauma-inducing” on students. Some students have lost family members to COVID and a lot of them have lost “years” at school in the physical sense, as many students learned from home last school year.

“I think we all came into this year thinking that it would be fantastic…but we really didn’t pay attention to how impactful the mental health, the socio-emotional learning piece to this, was,” Infinger said.

Infinger has one student who, starting at the very start of this school year, was scared to come into the building because the student had not been inside the school for an entire year.

“Social anxiety is huge – dealing with kids that literally already have concerns about being around peers…and then getting to stay home for an entire year, returning to school was a huge hurdle,” Infinger said.

That particular student is now thriving at school, but Infinger alluded to other situations. She has worked with one teacher who has really struggled with her class this semester because her students were previously learning in unstructured environments, so the teacher has been dealing with a lot of disruptions. Infinger has helped by providing some restorative circles with the class to help build a relationship and community within the classroom.

Ford alluded to very similar situations she has dealt with concerning students who are just not showing up for school because of mental health concerns.

“Once they’re here they’re fine, but it’s hard for them to get up and actually get in the swing of going back to school,” Ford said.

There is also a lot of poverty in Berkeley County; there are situations where, for some students, school is their safe place where they receive care.

“Sometimes school can be the only place they can get a meal, or the only place where someone actually cares, so when we took that away we had a lot of students that were depressed, had anxiety issues – because school was their safe place, and we took that away from them,” Ford said.

Infinger also pointed out that the last time some of the kids were in the school buildings, they were elementary students. They then had to learn from home for a year and then came back this year as middle-schoolers.

“A lot of them didn’t have a transition from coming from an elementary school to a middle school,” she said. “So we’re seeing a lot of elementary-type behaviors in middle school because that’s kind of where they’re at right now.”

 

Concerns with safety

There is also an added nervousness from the idea that schools might shut down again if the pandemic worsens.

“Hopefully that doesn’t happen but we can’t make any promises, but I think a lot of kids are nervous and afraid that we’ll have another shutdown,” Ford said.

Prior to the pandemic, social workers were the primary people in the district to conduct home visits. Now adding COVID to the mix, social workers are still doing this while having to take into account their own health and safety. This means making sure they are wearing the proper personal protective equipment when they visit homes.

“We, at the same time, want to make sure we’re safe but we also want to make sure we’re reaching our families,” Infinger said.

The public’s concerns on having children back in school during the pandemic are legit – Ford and Infinger are mothers themselves and had their own share of concerns.

However, there is a lot to be gained by having the students back in the building.

“A lot of these kiddos don’t thrive in an environment that’s not structured – they need that consistency, they need that community, they need that relationship, they need that connection,” Infinger said. “So being in school is just huge, and…unfortunately what we’re seeing right now is the impact that some of these not being in school had.”

When certain students are not in school, Ford said it can be hard to track them down and see what is causing them to not come to school.

“If they’re here, we can check on them, we can make sure they’re getting the mental health support that they need. We can make sure that they’re getting help with their academics…and just checking in on them to make sure everything’s going ok,” Ford said. “But when they’re not here, it’s usually hard to get in contact with them to make sure that things are going the way that they should.”

 

Finding motivation

Both Infinger and Ford noted there is a very negative connotation behind the term “social worker.” The stigma they most often deal with is that families believe their job is to come to people’s houses and take their kids away – and that is not true.

“We’re not here to take your children, that’s not what we do,” Ford said. “If anything, we want to help the parents to be able to help their students.”

Ford said the goal behind the added support is to get families to a place where they no longer need help from a social worker.

“We’re that gap between the school and the home to make sure that everything is flowing smoothly and to be able to provide the parents with the resources so that they can do for their children without…us intervening,” she said.

The one thing BCSD social workers want parents to know is: they are here to help – whatever that looks like.

“I’m here for their kiddos,” Infinger said, adding, “We’re all in this together, and we’re definitely trying to be as impactful for everybody (as possible).”

They also just love being able to help families.

“Parenting is hard – there’s no rulebook, there’s no how-to,” Ford said. “So just being able to help them help the kids…ultimately that’s our number-one priority, it’s the students.”

While it is a tough job, the two attribute their desire to keep at it to the students, and they do a lot to keep students in school: Infinger has three students in a 45-day alternate to expulsion program, and if they complete it they get to return to school without being expelled.

Ford ran a dropout prevention program for high school seniors last year that were at risk of not graduating. Working with those students and seeing them graduate was mind-boggling to Ford.

“Out of everything that I’ve done as a social worker, that is probably my top one – just seeing those kids being able to graduate,” Ford said, adding, “That was definitely a happy moment for me.”

Ford and Infinger know they are needed, and if they had even more social workers on their team – and thus less schools to cover – they would all be able to do even more for BCSD’s schools.

“Social workers have a bad stigma,” Ford said, “and we are working here at Berkeley County to try and change that stigma, so they see us as a resource and as an aid and not as somebody they should be afraid of.”

Monica Kreber
kreberm@bcsdschools.net