Message from Dean Betsy Farmer about social work and COVID-19


It has been a long few weeks for our communities. We are all trying to find our “new normal” and adjust to the many disruptions in our lives. As Dean, I have had the opportunity to connect with students, faculty and staff, our alumni, and community members to hear how social workers are dealing with these changes.

This whole experience is a real roller coaster for many of us. At the moment, I'm infused with a new adrenaline from this crisis -- the adrenaline of dedication brought about by anger. This virus is laying bare so many long-standing inequities and problems in our society -- and emphasizing the critical necessity of all that we do in Social Work. We're seeing, in accelerated time, the devastating effects of racist policies and institutional racism that result in extremely elevated COVID-19 death rates among African Americans.

We're witnessing the extreme implications of privilege -- the inconvenience of "work at home" for many middle and upper class Americans, while working class and low-wage workers have lost their jobs in unprecedented numbers or are making daily decisions about the risk/benefit of reporting to "essential" jobs. And, of course, the absurdity of "stay at home" orders for people who are homeless.

The potential generational increase in educational attainment gaps, as some youth benefit from the opportunities of tech-enabled ongoing learning while others lose out on the opportunities and supports that provide the underpinning of our self-proclaimed ideal that "anyone can make it."

Where child welfare professionals are overwhelmed by the needs around them, but reports of child maltreatment are down because mandated reporters are no longer seeing children. This pandemic is bring to the front all that is wrong with our society!

But it's also bringing into focus the choices that we can make to make things better. Suddenly, paid sick leave doesn't seem quite so impossible. Assuring health care coverage regardless of employment status seems more essential. Telemedicine is suddenly "normal" and reimbursable. Evictions are recognized as immoral/illegal. These are all things that we, as a field, have been working and advocating for ages. 

So, I am fired up -- with the righteous anger that drives me to work as hard as possible to build the workforce, momentum, and collective will to dismantle the underlying problems that this crisis makes undeniable to anyone who is willing to look/think. And to assure that the positive policy/practice gains that have been made are sustained once we go "back to normal."

This is not going to be a return to the "normal" that we used to know -- it can't be! We, as a field and as a society, can't pretend to forget the realities that are slamming us at the moment. And we can't pretend that the changes in policy and practice that create more access and possibilities were only "good enough" in a crisis. And, we need to fight for recognition of the importance of our values, practice, and research to build the "new normal" that will emerge from this.

We need to figure out how to effectively teach our students under these odd and uncertain conditions; we need to continue the hard discussions and work around how to create a school, community, and world that are truly based on inclusion and belonging; and we've got to do the work to make it clear that social work values, knowledge, and practice are essential to bring us through this whole and headed in a just, equitable, and sustainable direction! 

This is hard, horrible, and scary at the moment. But, this can also be a wake-up call and catalyst to double down on the issues and values that drive us!

I know from talking to many students, faculty, staff, alumni, and colleagues that we’re all trying to figure out how to be maximally helpful to meet the needs and make the changes that we recognize. We’re limited by “stay at home” orders, our own responsibilities for child care and other family responsibilities, and our own varying vulnerabilities to the virus. But each of us can help in our own way and from where we are.

There are many opportunities to volunteer (here’s the Pitt link for such opportunities

I have been struck by people’s creative ways to help sustain local businesses and build community in this virtual format.

We can donate to causes and non-profits that desperately need help at the moment.

We can advocate with our legislators to recognize the need for quick, responsive, science-informed, true leadership and policy.

We can check on those who can’t (or shouldn’t) be out and about.

And, we can vote – this crisis is showing the importance of leadership at all levels of government. Make sure that, as we celebrate 100 years of women’s right to vote, we are all participating to make our voices heard!

Take care, stay safe, fight on!