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A plan for digital youth work helped move youth work quickly online

18. March 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has posed a brand new challenge to society at large. This has also made a big impact on youth work: young people now have a greater need to be heard and to discuss matters, but youth centres and traditional activities will be closed for at least one month.

The global onslaught of the epidemic has been reported on the news throughout the early part of the year. Based on the situation in other countries, it seemed only a matter of time before it hit Finland. Many municipalities have realised that their contingency plans for youth work are lacking, incomplete or non-existent.

This was also true in Hyvinkää, where youth-work contingency plans are still in the making. However, Youth Services reacted quickly to the possible spread of the coronavirus at the weekly staff meeting held on 3 March 2020.

Preparations and provisions made at many levels simultaneously

At our meeting, we decided to prepare for the possible spread of the virus from three different perspectives:

  • In youth work activities, increased attention needed to be placed on hygiene to prevent the disease from spreading.
  • Each employee needed adequate resources to meet young people and deal with the situation.
  • Everyone had to prepare for face-to-face meetings with young people moving to social media and online.

Here is an excerpt from the meeting memo, describing the instructions delineated at the meeting:

  • Ensuring the hygiene of facilities:
    • Hand sanitiser must be acquired and made easily available (e.g. on tables and counters).
    • Young people exhibiting signs of illness will be politely asked to go home.
    • Employees show a good example by washing their hands and using hand sanitiser.
    • Frequently used equipment (pool cues, PlayStation controllers, mice and keyboards) must be regularly cleaned with a disinfectant cleanser, at least once a day, as agreed.
    • Unwrapped sweets, crisps and other snacks eaten by hand must not be served, and when fixing food, special emphasis must be placed on hand hygiene, for example, by using disposable plastic gloves.
    • Apart from the coronavirus, these instructions also help prevent the influenza virus and other infectious diseases from spreading.
  • Discussing the situation in meetings with young people:
    • Employees must acquaint themselves with, for example, the guidelines of the City of Hyvinkää and the website of THL.
    • Young people may have fears or worries related to the situation. They should be given enough space to deal with the topic during our activities.
    • Young people may react in different ways, and this may be displayed as indifference, humour, anxiety, fear, attention-seeking or other types of reactions.
    • We will try to calm them down and will not spread rumours.
  • Preparing for the epidemic:
    • Follow and comply with general instructions.
    • If the recommendation is to avoid meetings, we will move meetings with young people to social media and online.
  • Our communication will follow the guidelines issued by the City of Hyvinkää. The joint municipal authority for healthcare and social welfare services will be in charge of communication, and our head of youth work will serve as our contact person if required.

We found the guidelines to be good, and preparing them together made the staff feel that we could contribute in a concrete way. The guidelines for enhancing our facilities’ hygiene conveyed this feeling to young people, who, for example, actively and independently cleaned the game and gaming equipment before and after use. We acted together against a disconcerting virus, and everyone got to feel they were involved.

Plans prepared for the transfer to online youth work

We also drew up a plan for moving all the activities of Youth Services (gaming, youth facilities and clubs) online in one day should guidelines be issued restricting and reducing face-to-face meetings. Each coordinator was asked to plan (together with their supervisor, if required) how this could be carried out in practice.

Youth Services already had two Discord servers – “Hyvinkään Pelitalo” and “Nuorten Hyvinkää”, which could be used to replace the gaming spaces (“Pelitalo”) and the youth facilities (“Spotti”). As for clubs, youth workers and young people jointly discussed what social media or online service the activities could be moved to. One club decided to set up their own Discord server, another opted for Facebook Messenger, while others chose to use existing WhatsApp groups.

The idea was to support young people’s everyday routines by offering them a chance to meet during the same opening hours and the same weekdays and with familiar participants and youth workers. The meeting space would simply move online. A similar plan was made for clients of individual services: physical meetings and contacts were replaced by social media services.

From plans to implementation

The plans turned into reality on Friday morning, 13 March 2020, when the decision was made to close the youth facilities in Hyvinkää until further notice and put the plan into practice. The plan had been carried out in half a workday: youth workers created any missing Discord usernames for themselves and communication kicked in on the Youth Services’ website and public social media channels and directly with young people. The first open doors on Discord took place the same day, and the focus of youth workers’ activities was shifted to supporting young people online.

Starting on Monday, 16 March 2020, remote work orders, including the duties encompassed by remote work, were issued to all Youth Services’ staff members. All the employees already had smartphones for youth work-related social media activities, and all but one also had a laptop. Since then, the employees have been mainly working at home and have met with young people online and on social media. Information about online on-call services was published on the page www.hyvinkaa.fi/nuoriso.

Later the same day, we heard about the adoption of the Emergency Powers Act and about youth facilities and schools being closed for the period 18 March–13 April 2020. When we also got confirmation of youth work activities being put on hold for at least four weeks, we began to expand our online activities, as planned: we encouraged staff to independently come up with new ideas, get acquainted with Verke’s online tips and follow services provided by other municipalities.

I believe we have successfully reacted to the situation in Hyvinkää: quickly, proactively, focusing on the needs of young people and taking staff into account. This has been made possible by the employees’ motivation and competence as well as by our previously acquired modern equipment. In addition, all staff members have become acquainted with digital youth work and, last autumn participated in drafting the Youth Services 2019 operating model. However, we still have a lot to learn, especially regarding how youth work can prepare for emergency situations to react even better to unexpected situations in the future.

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