A team of social work educators at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is helping ensure county departments of social services (DSS) across North Carolina have access to essential training for their employees.
The Family and Children’s Resource Program (FCRP), part of the UNC School of Social Work, has partnered with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Division of Social Services for many years to provide child welfare workforce training required by state legislation. Until recently, most required training was delivered in person. After the onset of COVID-19, FCRP helped NCDHHS create online training options for approximately 1,000 DSS employees across the state — all within the span of two weeks.
“At first we thought, ‘Two weeks is not possible,’” explained Laura Phipps, who leads the 22-person FCRP team. “But there was no question that we had to step up and do it.”
Training for North Carolina’s DSS employees is extensive. It begins with a 72-hour pre-service course social workers must complete before receiving a caseload. Child welfare social workers also complete separate courses on the Child Protective Services intake process, assessments, legal and medical aspects of child welfare practice, in-home services, permanency planning (for children and youth in foster care) and child development.
In all, FCRP needed to adapt eight classroom courses immediately. Courses with sensitive content, such as information about child abuse and neglect, had to be adapted carefully for online instruction.
Fortunately, the FCRP team had extensive experience online. FCRP has been providing ncswlearn.org, NCDHHS’s online portal for DSS training, for nearly 20 years. FCRP developed 25 of the 29 on-demand courses available on ncswlearn.org, addressing topics such as opioids, child neglect, child development, child mental health and child welfare supervision.
“We are known within the training system as the people who have been on the online course bandwagon much longer,” Phipps explained.
FCRP team members have used Adobe Connect Pro for self-paced courses for many years and knew the platform could be used to help DSS employees complete face-to-face courses from home. For each course, Phipps said, the first step was to ask, “If we can’t do this in the classroom [due to COVID-19], how can we do the same thing in Adobe?”
FCRP collaborated closely with DSS staff members and trainers, including faculty from UNC School of Medicine, to adapt existing courses for the online environment.
The collaborators met through online chats and phone sessions, created “virtual classrooms” in Adobe for each course and assessed each course component as it was created. They searched for videos and other potential course materials that already existed online and checked for copyright restrictions on those materials. Every day or two, they’d meet online to review their progress.
“There were so many calls and nervousness and worry,” Phipps described the first few days of course development. “Then there was the moment I felt, ‘We’re okay.’”
But FCRP’s involvement went beyond adapting the classroom courses to online, Phipps said. The team also planned a “train the trainers” component to help Division of Social Services staff members learn to use Adobe Connect.
“We offered to help them — ‘We’ll help you convert. We can teach your trainers and we will be there to support you through the delivery’—even though this was outside the scope of our original contract,” Phipps said. (FCRP contracts annually with the Division of Social Services to develop and present specific courses.) “It just felt important to do what had to be done.”
There were additional challenges. After courses were converted to the virtual classroom, FCRP helped learners set up and test their equipment and troubleshoot so they could participate. “So far, the Division and learners feel it’s going well,” Phipps said.
FCRP is serving all 100 counties in North Carolina with this initiative and other ongoing projects. In addition, because of COVID-19, the ncswlearn.org portal has been made available to social work students across the state who have field placements in county DSS child welfare units. The statewide “stay home” measure has made it difficult for these students to meet their field placement required hours, and the portal gives them a way to earn field placement hours by taking online child welfare courses, Phipps explained.
“Our primary obligation is to support the child welfare workforce,” Phipps said. “We’re committed to them, their agencies and the families they serve.”