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Commentary COVID-19 in Maryland Health Care

Opinion: Gov. Hogan Must Help Maryland Social Work Students Out of Limbo

Photo from the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Rocky Mountain Lab.

As Marylanders retreat indoors to keep safe from COVID-19, healthcare and social workers across the state are stepping up (and out of their homes) to help infected and at-risk patients.

But hundreds of students wrapping up social work programs have been caught in licensing limbo because unexpected hurdles stand in the way of their going to work to help in the pandemic.

This year’s graduating classes want to protect their communities against the novel coronavirus but can’t get their fingerprints scanned due to “essential business” restrictions put into place by the state government.

Maryland’s elected officials must move quickly and decisively to help students navigate through these requirements and join the fight against COVID-19.

Even after completing rigorous academic and hands-on requirements to finish their degrees, social work graduates stand to be stuck in place amid the worst public health crisis since 1918.

A degree alone does not give social work graduates the green light to practice in their fields. They must also pass licensing examinations and clear criminal background checks.

Centers administering these licensing exams are operating at minimal capacity with the number of test takers  “strictly limited.”   Pearson VUE, which manages test centers across the state, has closed many locations due to the impossibility of maintaining social distancing in crowded classrooms.

Prospective social work graduates cannot even sit for these postponed licensing exams without first getting fingerprinted. And, Governor Larry Hogan’s (R) ordered closure of all “non-essential” businesses on March 23 shuttered fingerprinting centers across the state until further notice.

Higher learning institutions, including the University of Maryland School of Social Work, have adapted to the pandemic by allowing students to learn from home in lieu of in-person training. But such flexible arrangements won’t move trainees into full work without a contingency plan for licensing.

These limitations are devastating to graduating students and to patients across Maryland who are adversely impacted by the shortage of qualified healthcare professionals.

Due to exposure risks at overwhelmed, overcrowded hospitals and doctor’s offices, many vulnerable patients – such as elderly and disabled individuals – must stay at home and manage their symptoms without in-person care. Social workers are meeting with these patients virtually, via telehealth services, but this help will be limited without a steady influx of new professionals in the field.

The Hogan administration must work closely with professional organizations such as the Maryland Board of Social Work Examiners to provide online, expedited alternatives to traditional licensing test requirements. In addition, the state government should explore options to reopen fingerprinting facilities with rigorous disinfecting requirements and social distancing measures.

Hundreds of social work students across Maryland can get to work helping patients cope during this crisis, but only if state government and credentialing organizations work together to make the licensure system more flexible and responsive.


The writer is the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.

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Opinion: Gov. Hogan Must Help Maryland Social Work Students Out of Limbo