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Providing Successful Remote Services During the COVID-19 Crisis: Tips from the International Institute of New England

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Photo credit: International Institute of New England

When a busy human services operation providing critical support to vulnerable people is forced to immediately suspend face-to-face interactions, the sudden transition to remote work is not easy. Staff miss their work spaces, their clients, and each other. Program participants can no longer walk in for assistance, and quick questions that could have been easily answered now require an email or a pre-scheduled phone call. But as difficult as things may be, it is important to remember that it is still possible to provide support to clients. For the International Institute of New England (IINE), this is even more important now, when refugees and immigrants are so disproportionately impacted by our global health crisis.

IINE’s offices closed for in-person services on March 13, 2020. Between that date and April 13, 2020, IINE served 1,369 unique individuals across our three sites in Boston (MA), Lowell (MA), and Manchester (NH). Staff and volunteers worked tirelessly during this period to deliver 733 wellness checks, 414 instances of emergency education support, 217 instances of emergency employment support; 185 instances of emergency public benefits support, and many more services. This post will offer tips and best practices that have proven to be essential in the provision of these remote services at IINE.

Case Management Services

  • Stay in close contact with clients: Caseworkers have connected with client families to make sure kids have the right technology and academic resources to keep learning while public schools are closed. Regular ongoing check-ins with youth clients have continued, and in-person mentoring sessions have moved remotely to group calls utilizing Zoom.
  • Train existing interpreters to help keep communication channels open. Caseworkers have also been working closely with multilingual interpreters to provide outreach, COVID-19 resources, and to better understand the evolving needs of clients.
  • Leverage your existing volunteers: Volunteers (and staff) have delivered groceries and essential supplies to client households, using social distancing and safety protocols.
  • Meet regularly with colleagues: Caseworkers have begun to meet more regularly, in addition to previous weekly meetings, in order to trade resources and best practices. A lot of information sharing that occurs organically while in the same office is lost when working remotely, so having check-ins can improve service delivery.
  • Give refreshers on database usage: All staff have been given refreshers and/or additional training on various aspects of the organization’s internal database. Having staff keep client data up to date ensures that clients receiving services from multiple caseworkers have the smoothest experience possible.

English Classes

  • Make sure clients have appropriate resources to transition to online learning: Our education team has moved our English Language courses fully on-line. Staff have made sure that our adult students have access to appropriate technology, in some cases lending computers where needed.
  • Develop new resources to fill gaps: Learning packets of classwork sorted by level, with links to assignments and other educational resources, have been compiled and emailed to students enrolled in class.
  • Leverage existing partnerships: School-age students have been connected to various technology resources through school districts and like-minded community partners.
  • Build in flexibility to meet clients’ needs: Teachers at IINE have the flexibility to adapt their interactive components to the platform they feel best suits their learning cohort. This means opting for lower-tech options in situations where clients do not have access. Some instructors have utilized group messaging apps to send out homework assignments. The messaging apps also provide an environment for students to continue practicing using English even when they are not physically in the classroom.
  • Maintain information sharing: Even with the various platforms and methods now being used, program data is still recorded in a standardized way within IINE’s internal database. This allows for streamlined information sharing and monitoring.
  • Share curriculum and resources between levels: As with caseworkers, instructors have started to meet more regularly to discuss challenges and successes in the virtual classroom.

Employment Services

  • Support both active and former clients: Employment specialists have been reaching out to both active and former clients, many of whom are losing their jobs to lay-offs and furloughs, to check in on employment status, offer assistance communicating with employers, and in some instances help with finding new work.
  • Adapt staff training to respond to new needs: Staff have been trained to assist clients in completing unemployment benefits applications, help clients apply to various other emergency benefits, and help clients identify support systems.
  • Continue to develop relationships with employers: Although many places are laying off employees due to the health crisis, there remain essential businesses that are still hiring. Employment staff have continued to reach out to local businesses to nurture partnerships and set up pathways to success for clients looking to apply to other jobs.
  • Perform auxiliary services: In addition to job applications and unemployment benefits applications, clients have received assistance in updating their resumes and cover letters to better prepare for new opportunities.

As an organization, we are proud that we have not allowed the health crisis or the temporary suspension of on-site services to deter us from continuing to support our immigrant and refugee neighbors. In fact, we have reached and supported more people during this time than ever before. Especially now, it is important to keep working hard – and creatively – to keep connections alive, even remotely.

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