As the University of Tennessee, Knoxville ramped up preparations for the fall semester, one of the first priorities was to develop a robust system for contact tracing. Graduate students from the College of Social Work were recruited and hired as contact tracers and valued for their unique skillset. This has given the students the opportunity to engage in an interprofessional field placement with public health and student services professionals.
As this new opportunity was explored for Social Work students, David Laubach, UTK Coordinator of Contact Tracing, shared his concern that the contact tracers could not possibly provide the follow-up and support so needed by students faced with isolation and quarantine. In response to this unmet need, the College developed an Outreach and Support field placement unit to work as an extension of UT Contact Tracing. The role of the Outreach and Support team is to reach out by phone to students experiencing distress in isolation and quarantine. MSSW students offer psychosocial support, provide connections to needed resources, and identify students in need of crisis intervention. One benefit of these fully remote placements is that students in the College were able to engage online students from multiple states, work together on teams, and experience a closer connection to the college.
In addition to this team, two MSSW students were placed with the Dean of Students Office in 974-HELP, the referral line for distressed students. This has also provided the opportunity for MSSW students to provide support for UT students experiencing the stress of social isolation.
Tracy Young, MSSW student on the Contact Tracing Outreach and Support Team reported that, “I have had a couple of students break down crying within minutes of me talking with them. I find that students are very open with talking to me because I’m a peer. Perhaps the most difficult call I’ve made was to an 18-year-old freshman. She had recently moved to Knoxville. She was inconsolable upon learning of her positive Covid-19 diagnosis. After building rapport, I helped calm her down… I actively listened as she talked through her frustrations and fear…Within days she appeared to be a thriving, happy, talkative individual.”
Alyssa Isbrandt, MSSW student at 974-HELP reported that, “Most of the students I have met with have been freshman, so they are experiencing isolation in a different way, as most of them are living in a dorm with a new roommate and have little to no connections outside of this… Many of them are eating, sleeping, and studying in their dorm and this has led to a lot of anxiety and depression. Many students have experienced good results from just taking the time to go on a quick walk …Also suggesting simple coping skills, such as mindfulness techniques and breathing exercises.”
The College of Social Work is a highly valued partner in UT’s efforts to provide support to students during COVID-19. As the impact of COVID-19 on the campus and students rises and falls over the academic year, students in the College will respond, using social work skills and ingenuity, to decrease the impact of isolation on UT students.