PS@EDC Community of Practice Helps OASAS Staff Go Virtual

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As concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on substance misuse and mental health deepen, practitioners nationwide are exploring ways to deliver prevention programming in a world where physical distancing is the new norm. For a workforce accustomed to delivering services face-to-face, the current environment means re-thinking how works gets done, and developing new skills to support virtual engagement.

To help build these skills, the New York State Office of Addiction Service and Supports (OASAS) is partnering with Prevention Solutions@EDC to deliver a series of events for staff working in its six Prevention Resource Centers (PRCs). Located across the state, the PRCs are responsible for providing resources and support to local prevention coalitions.

“Prevention Solutions was already on board to work with the PRCs. A priority identified by the PRC staff was strengthening the virtual collaboration skills of their on-the-ground staff—their community development specialists. The COVID outbreak just meant the need was much, much more urgent,” says PS@EDC trainer Kris Gabrielsen.

Informed by an online survey and in-depth conversations with the practitioners working in the field, PS@EDC developed the training Taking Your Prevention Work onto Virtual Platforms. Delivered earlier this month, the interactive event offered PRC staff a chance to explore the benefits of online collaboration platforms and exchange tips for building the technology skills of the coalitions they support. The group of 21 discussed online engagement techniques such as conducting polls and using breakout rooms;  video conference etiquette (do place your webcam at eye level, don’t sit on a chair that swivels); and strategies for supporting participants with poor Internet connections and preventing Zoom “bombing.”

“We used Zoom as a model because that’s the platform most of the specialists were using. But the principles of good facilitation that we explored were relevant for all platforms,” says Gabrielsen.

For example, the group spent time talking about the importance of good preparation, including having a clear (and not too ambitious) agenda, understanding the needs (and technical capacities) of participants, choosing appropriate interactions, and anticipating the types of tech support participants may need to participate fully.

“It’s an understatement to say that virtual meetings are different from in-person meetings,” says Gabrielsen. “Participants are distracted—to some degree by the technology, but also by the many other things going on in their lives. Cats are crawling into laps. Children are needing snacks. Emails demand immediate attention. So as a facilitator, we need to do everything we can to keep people engaged.”

A high point of the training was the opportunity it provided participants to learn from one another. Participants were forthcoming with their experiences and challenges, and the event featured a short presentation from New York City’s PRC director and staff, who had recently convened an online networking session for 27 practitioners from across the city. “There was tremendous enthusiasm,” reported Ronni Katz, Director of the NYC PRC. “We had a better turn-out than we have in-person!”

By the end of the session, participants left the session with a clearer sense of how to use online platforms such as Zoom to support their work, and the concrete skills needed to do so. It also helped to alleviate some entrenched technology anxiety. “[The training helped] to “calm down my low-tech nerves,” wrote one participant. “I just wish we had more time!”

To learn more about this training and other services PS@EDC will be delivering to OASAS, contact Gisela Rots at grots@EDC.org.