Maintaining social work competence: Continuing education meets current needs

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Early in 2020, it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would prevent the usual methods of carrying out many activities important to social work regulation. Governors and mayors in nearly every U.S. jurisdiction issued orders creating emergency provisions addressing such areas as license renewal dates, in-person supervision requirements, and continuing education requirements.

Adjusting continuing education requirements has stood out as an important way that regulators have shown flexibility while preserving the importance of public protection. Three members—North Carolina, New York, and West Virginia—share how their jurisdictions responded to the pandemic by adjusting CE requirements for license renewal. And ASWB’s Approved Continuing Education program has continued to approve CE programs and providers that meet its high standards while offering providers flexibility in delivery methods so they can continue to meet the need for social work education.

Emergency provisions ease CE requirements

Because stay at home orders made in-person trainings impossible, some states removed previous restrictions on CE delivery methods to allow licensees to complete continuing education for license renewal. North Carolina licensees typically renew in June and must have 40 hours of CE, half of which must be completed in person or through a live webinar. The North Carolina Social Work Certification and Licensure Board implemented an emergency rule waiving the in-person/live requirement and allowing all distance education formats and later extended it to address continuing needs. Elizabeth Pope, the board’s executive director, said, “Many social workers contacted the board concerned because the trainings they had registered for during the months of May and June were being canceled or postponed indefinitely. It was surprising to see how many training programs were able to switch their in-person trainings to online platforms.”

Before the pandemic, New York allowed up to one-third of the needed 36 hours of credit to be earned through self-study methods. “New York law allows the department to grant an adjustment to the CE requirement for cause,” said David Hamilton, executive secretary of the State Board for Social Work. “My colleagues and I met in March when the shutdown started and recommended a policy to allow 100 percent self-study for courses taken from March through June 2020. This was subsequently extended to allow any self-study courses from approved providers to be completed March 2020 to May 1, 2021, so that a licensee could complete all required hours as self-study during the pandemic and submit them for the period that included the pandemic and went beyond.”

Before the public health emergency, West Virginia’s CE requirement was more stringent than those in New York and North Carolina. “We required that 10 of the 40 hours needed to be face to face/in seat,” said Vickie James, executive director of the West Virginia Board of Social Work. In response to the pandemic, the 10-hour in-person requirement was waived. The waiver, in effect through March 2021, gives social workers “more flexibility in meeting the requirement and helps avoid last- minute crises in renewing,” James said. While she and the board’s members recognize that online learning is becoming the norm, she says the board also recognizes some of the positives of meeting in person. “There is also merit to social workers having the opportunity to network,” she said.

ACE helps ensure high-quality CE while reducing barriers

Whether continuing education is provided in person or through distance learning, regulators need assurance that their licensees are obtaining high-quality CE taught according to best practices. ASWB provides that assurance through its Approved Continuing Education program by reviewing and approving courses and providers that meet its rigorous standards for quality and relevance.

ACE standards encourage providers to follow best practices in both distance and in-person education. “We encourage high-quality continuing education,” Lisa Casler Haun, ASWB manager of continuing competence and continuing education services said, “through our posttesting and pilot testing requirements, for example.”

The ASWB ACE program helped facilitate the availability of high-quality online continuing education by waiving application requirements and fees for providers seeking approval to transition in-person courses to a live webinar format. The waiver went into effect in March 2020 and was eventually extended through the end of the year. “We supported our providers of ACE credit by reducing barriers to moving their offerings online,” Casler Haun said. That meant that licensees could more easily obtain CE online and meet ASWB member boards’ renewal requirements.

Casler Haun also noted that ASWB’s compilation of emergency regulatory provisions related to the COVID-19 pandemic supported CE providers by helping them learn about changes to CE requirements. “ACE standards require our providers to know the laws in the jurisdictions where they provide continuing education,” Casler Haun said. “It would have been a challenge for providers to keep up with all the changes. ASWB’s work helped them stay informed.”

Providers reach learners

Providers of continuing education adjusted quickly to pandemic realities, moving in-person courses online. Their rapid action helped make learning opportunities available to social workers, allowing social workers to keep their knowledge current and continue to serve the public safely and competently. Two ACE providers shared ways that moving trainings to online formats helped social workers meet their needs for continuing competence.

Benjamin R. Sher of the office of global and lifelong learning at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work said more social workers can now access his program. “One of the great advantages of our certificate programs being offered online,” he said, “has been that licensed professionals from outside the tristate area have signed up for them. In some of our programs, we have licensed professionals from as far as California and Alaska joining us!”

Lorna Runkle of Act-Cess USA also noticed advantages arising from the online format. “Most trainers and participants prefer cutting the full day of training into halves…,” she said. “This sometimes meant more time for the participants to absorb and apply the material in between the two sessions, we think leading to better learning and retention.”

Timely topics help build competence and protect the public

Ensuring continuing competence, an important component of public protection, has been a concern for regulators as the renewed focus on racial justice, mental health challenges related to the pandemic, and the provision of social work services using technology has created a need for education in those areas.  “We’ve seen more courses being offered on best practices in telehealth and COVID-19 related concerns including depression, isolation, anxiety, and substance use disorders. We’ve also seen providers respond to the call for social justice action, including increased offerings of content related to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Casler Haun said of trainings submitted for ACE individual course approval.

The need for training in providing services through technology is particularly relevant to the current public health emergency because many social workers have moved their practice online to comply with stay at home orders and the need for physical distancing. Regulators have an interest in social workers’ education in using technology in practice because competency is essential to ethical practice. “Social workers who provide electronic services,” states Standard 2.06 of the NASW, ASWB, CSWE, & CSWA Standards for Technology in Social Work Practice, “should be competent in the use of technology and maintain competency through relevant continuing education, consultation, supervision, and training.”

The importance of gaining or maintaining competence in use of technology in practice was underscored in a recent Social Work Today article, Telebehavioral Health: Now a Social Work Imperative. In addition to exploring the ways the education and practice communities are addressing electronic practice, the article includes a discussion about regulatory challenges and responses to the sudden need to shift to this modality because of COVID-19.

As 2020 ends, many have combined forces to meet today’s challenges to public protection. Regulators, governments, CE providers, and ASWB have helped promote public safety by responding to the year’s challenges without compromising social workers’ continuing competence or the public’s right to receive services from competent social workers.