Two Canadian provinces reflect on pandemic challenges and solutions
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a shared experience across the planet, it has also resulted in particular challenges and specific solutions. The ways in which the social work regulatory colleges in British Columbia and Ontario have handled the pandemic’s challenges illustrate both the commonalities and the particularities of continuing to serve the public in troubled times.
Mark Hillenbrand, registrar and CEO of the British Columbia College of Social Workers, says his office closed in mid-March. “We haven’t been in the office since then.” Nevertheless, the college, which serves approximately 5,000 social work registrants, has continued to provide all services with minimal disruption.
Provisional and temporary registrations
No new legal provisions were needed to handle circumstances created by the pandemic, Hillenbrand said. British Columbia has a pair of licensure categories—a provisional registration and a temporary registration—that have been put to good use in addressing issues caused by the pandemic.
“We already have temporary registration, available to social workers at no cost,” Hillenbrand said. Temporary registration allows a registered social worker from outside the province to practice in British Columbia for 90 days, a period that can be extended to six months. Social workers providing services to university students especially benefited from this mobility provision. “We’ve had university students from all over Canada come home,” Hillenbrand said, “and we were able to set their practitioners up with temporary registration so care could continue uninterrupted.”
British Columbia also has a provisional class of registration that gives registrants with a job offer a year to pass their social work licensing exam. “That class of registration addressed the ASWB test center closures,” Hillenbrand said. It also supported the stability of the social work workforce, especially in hospitals. “We focused on getting students who had been doing practicums in hospitals provisionally registered so they could stay in their positions,” Hillenbrand said. By keeping in close contact through biweekly meetings with social work leaders in hospitals, the college was able to ensure it was not creating workforce barriers.
Communicating with peers
Regular communication with registrars and association directors across Canada has also proven helpful, Hillenbrand said. “CASW [Canadian Association of Social Workers] opened a biweekly meeting of registrars and association directors so we can talk with and educate each other.” They have addressed how to ease the mobility of the workforce, sharing information about temporary registration for social workers registered in other provinces, for example.
Lise Betteridge, who serves as registrar and CEO of the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers, also values staying in close contact with other jurisdictions throughout the crisis. “I’m very grateful for my social work regulatory colleagues and for our regular update meetings,” Betteridge said. “I think being aware of what is going on in different provinces continues to be very important for all of us as we move forward.”
The value of staying in contact also applies to communication with registrants and other stakeholders in Ontario. Since the start of the emergency, the college has sent out regular updates to the 23,000 social workers and social service workers it regulates. Recent updates have included links to government resources and information needed as Ontario begins to reopen. Betteridge said that recent updates have also shared information about “practice considerations and emphasized that members must use their professional judgment and refer to guidance from government and public health authorities in order to decide whether it was safe for them to return to providing in-person services.”
And though social workers are not considered to be regulated health care professionals under Ontario’s system, the college followed the health care regulators’ lead and shared very specific safety guidance—some directed toward those in private practice who may not receive information from an employer. Betteridge added, “Members were also strongly advised to continue to provide services by electronic means wherever possible.”
Electronic practice provision helps Ontarians
Some of the solutions available to the British Columbia college were not possible in Ontario. “Our legislation doesn’t provide for emergency or temporary registration,” Betteridge said. But a provision allowing electronic practice that was approved by the council (board) in summer 2019 allows practice by “those social workers in good standing in other Canadian provinces who wish to practise electronically in Ontario exclusively by electronic means,” Betteridge said.
Indeed, Betteridge said one of the most surprising aspects of the response of the social work community to the emergency was social workers’ swift transition to electronic practice. “With the emergency closure regulation in place, those of our members who weren’t considered ‘essential’ were not permitted to provide services in person,” Betteridge said. “It is striking how quickly the situation unfolded and how quickly members made this shift in their practice. Some might say we are in ‘the new normal’ now—though I can’t say this time has felt either normal or as static as that term implies.”
“Regulation is not known for being particularly nimble or flexible, and yet I think we have all been forced to take a hard look at our policies, processes, and assumptions and to act very quickly—and that’s a silver lining in this.” —Lise Betteridge
While many of the college’s regulatory operations—council and committee meetings, practice support, member services, and enforcement processes—were easily adapted to remote work, one major function of the college faced challenges because the registration process uses paper. “We were able to make some accommodations to register high-priority applicants and new graduates, but we are now facing a backlog of applications (including equivalency applications) that we must address,” Betteridge said.
Lessons for the future
Reflecting on the lessons learned so far in the emergency situation, Betteridge said, “Regulation is not known for being particularly nimble or flexible, and yet I think we have all been forced to take a hard look at our policies, processes, and assumptions and to act very quickly—and that’s a silver lining in this.” Betteridge and Hillenbrand agree that the future will include a new emphasis on emergency preparedness and a willingness to adjust and improve. As Betteridge notes: “I don’t think we will ever go back to the way things were.”