Although restrictions continue to ease and we are well and truly ‘living with COVID’, the virus is still a health and safety issue. Youth services must weigh up both the risks and the value of face-to-face when deciding how to deliver services and programs. Many organisations are asking us, must everything be hybrid from now on? Should we go online again, or is it better to push ahead with in-person?

Youth workers can work in a range of organisational structures, which might also cross over with other sectors. For example, a youth service within a council might be quite different to one that operates out of a health centre.

When deciding whether to deliver online, face-to-face or in a hybrid model, workers must evaluate the pros and cons of each option, which can depend on their organisation and the young people they work with.

We spoke with workers from a range of areas who shared what’s guiding their decision-making. Navigate their stories with the drop-down links below, which include how they apply government recommendations, innovations, and transferable tips.

General youth sector advice

The Victorian Government requires that if a worker has COVID-19 symptoms, their employer must:

  • Not require the worker to attend the workplace
  • Direct them to get tested as soon as possible

You are no longer required to isolate if you test positive for COVID-19. However, you must not work in a high-risk setting like hospitals, aged care and disability services while sick with COVID-19. There is targeted financial support available for eligible healthcare workers who must isolate. Find more information on the government’s ‘Checklist for COVID cases’ and see our isolation guide for further support.

It is still recommended to isolate for at least five days, and until you no longer have symptoms. The Victorian Government also strongly discourages you attending your workplace if you work with people who at a higher risk of becoming very sick with COVID-19. See the Victorian Government ‘Business and Work’ site for more information about workplace COVID safety.

In addition to working in a central workplace, youth workers may also work with young people in community settings. It’s important to be aware of what COVID-safety precautions different young people may need or want, and have a clear strategy on what to do if a young person had contact with a symptomatic staff member.

General: Hybrid programs

Hybrid programs don’t only have to take the format of some people together in person with the others joining online. You could deliver a program mostly online with a few dedicated, intentional sessions that are in-person, or deliver an alternating program like The Push has done.

Lisa Lorenz (she/her) is the All-Ages Program Manager at The Push, a youth music organisation delivering programs for the future music industry leaders, artists and audiences. The Push have developed creative hybrid models to remain engaged both internally and externally, whilst still properly following government advice.

Recently, The Push ran a four-month-long program that was delivered in an alternating structure of one week online and the other in person. This made the event more accessible to regional participants, and reduced COVID risks. “While online is accessible for all, we think it’s important to still do in-person as it helps with ensuring that the young people in our programs are able to connect meaningfully. There really is a different vibe,” Lisa says.

The Push has taken a similar approach in the office. The team are not required to go in-person, instead they will inform each other on a Friday in a team meeting of where they intend to work the following week. “This ensures communication, [and] we have learnt that working remotely is an option. We do all aim to go into the office on Fridays together for our weekly meeting (and toastie day!),” Lisa shares. “Currently, we are using the government suggestions and working from home, [and] we will evaluate this weekly on Fridays.”

Try hybrid programs if you:

  • Are a generalist youth service
  • Have young people who meet regularly and would prefer in-person, but it’s not a completely practical reason to justify it all the time (e.g., for travel or scheduling reasons)
  • Are coordinating a medium to large team with a diverse range of work preferences and capacities
General: Online programs

Online programs remain useful as we experience other seasonal viruses and new waves of COVID. This is particularly so for disabled and immunocompromised young people, as well as young people who experience COVID anxiety, or might find in-person programs distressing. Online options are also generally useful for short sessions, or to avoid travel when realistically you only need to touch base with a young person.

Alyce Gumley (she/her) is a Young Leaders Program Facilitator for the Youth Disability Advocacy Service (YDAS), where she facilitates a leadership program for young people who identify as disabled or having an impairment. Alyce considers online youth work an extension of creating a safe and innovative working environment for both young people and colleagues, which is not only a COVID consideration.

“The pandemic has forced youth workers to make their practice accessible and inclusive – values that are meant to underpin the foundation of our work, but often aren’t executed effectively,” Alyce says. “As a member of the disabled community and someone who works with young disabled people, more actively accessible practices are what we’ve been asking for. As we move into a ‘COVID normal’ world with less restrictions, this should not mean we see less accessibility.”

There are some downsides of working online that Alyce acknowledges, like tech issues, digital fatigue, and the fact that some young people have limited means to access online youth work. Alyce also notes that some youth workers might be reluctant to continue online work because of the struggle sometimes to manage a work/life balance; “but the onus falls on the worker to implement self-care and boundaries, which is a part of building your practice.”

In this way, she encourages youth workers to see developing a sustainable online practice in a post-lockdown world as an opportunity. The key is to be open-minded and continue giving young people options. “Be it how they communicate, whether they want to have their camera on or not – ask them what they need to feel comfortable, give them agency within the process. Don’t immediately take silence as a sign of disengagement! There is always a way to make online work engaging – you just have to be comfortable experimenting.”

Try online programs if you:

  • Need to explore how to make your practice more accessible (both in terms of disability, but also other factors)
  • Work with staff and/or young people who are disabled or immunocompromised
  • Work with staff and/or young people experiencing COVID-related anxiety
  • Do very regular and/or short check-ins with your young people or groups
  • Work across a large region
General: In-person programs

Karen Walsh (she/her) works in YACVic Rural as the Rural Development Worker – Great South Coast on Gunditjmara Country. She sees many benefits to face-to-face opportunities, such as the ease of building group connection and rapport, removing tech barriers, and the simple excitement to come back to in-person. But at the same time, Karen feels there is some undue pressure on offering face-to-face youth services where it isn’t needed.

“The pressure on the sector to both lift out of COVID, at the same time as retaining some of the great learnings from COVID, is enormous,” Karen shares. “When you combine that with the current workforce shortages, and of course in a rural area people are often sole workers – they’re not working in a team – there are great pressures that we’re bringing to bear on ourselves, but also young people whose experiences have been so dramatic and who want to find a new world beyond COVID, but don’t really know what that looks like.”

Karen suggests that for many young people who have been growing up through the changes of COVID, they may not even be fully aware of the traditional rites of passage and ‘normal experiences’ that they’ve supposedly missed out on. However, youth workers are trying to play catch-up on those experiences while also developing and implementing recovery and response programs. But two things can be true; we can acknowledge both the grief for what was missed or cancelled, but also the positive experiences that have happened instead, that we don’t necessarily need to make up for again in-person.

“There’s this massive influx of programs and activities and opportunities and things – which don’t just appear out of thin air, people work really hard to make these happen. Maybe we’ve all got to take a bit of a chill pill! You can’t ‘catch up’ two and a half years immediately.”

The difficulty in offering face-to-face youth services may also feel unprecedented for many; we might expect it should be easy, because it’s how we did things for so long pre-COVID. But actually, Karen suggests this phase can be likened more to the start of the pandemic, where everyone was learning how to work in a totally new way.

“It’s not the same anymore. We need thoughtful and intentional reinvention of youth work, and not to expect that that’s going to happen successfully and instantaneously. It is going to require a bit more thoughtful reflection and careful planning. And we’ll make mistakes! And that’s okay.

“The big key lesson for people working in this sector is not thinking that you’re on your own with it all. These are shared experiences; please reach out to your colleagues, networks, to YACVic, and access the supports and resources that are there.”

For those considering delivering face-to-face youth work, reflect first on who is asking for the project, and having a reason to deliver it this way. That is, try not to jump into it simply because it’s how we did things before and now we’re supposed to ‘go back to normal’.

Try face-to-face programs if you:

  • Have some young people who do not have a secure home environment to join from
  • Have some young people who do not have a reliable internet connection and/or personal device
  • Don’t have the capacity and skills for resolving tech issues
  • Are running a longer session
  • Are looking for an easy way for the group to feel connected and build rapport
Mental health

The Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council (VMIAC) is Victoria’s peak body for people with lived experience of mental health problems or emotional distress. Hiwan Giday (she/her) is the Community Development and Engagement Coordinator. She’s part of a team that connects young people with paid opportunities through a consumer register. “[We] help to build a community of people from all walks of life that have the commonality of lived experience of mental health and emotional distress,” she explains. This group regularly consult with the Victorian Department of Health on mental health matters.

In the mental health space, online activities allow for inclusion of Victorians who may not be able to travel – for example, due to regional location or disability. They also allow participants to be as involved as they want to be, which is extremely helpful for young people who might experience social anxiety. Hiwan notes that “these are voices that are historically underrepresented and essential to be heard in the mental health space and within VMIAC.

“However, we acknowledge the mental health impact of isolation and the inability to engage with people in-person, [which includes] people who may not have experience using technology devices. With taking the appropriate COVID safe precautions, VMIAC is transitioning into facilitating hybrid events, where lived experience individuals have the choice to engage in events and activities in their preferred mode.”

Hiwan shares that VMIAC encourages feedback and requests from young people, to be sure that VMIAC are advocating for their best interests. Additionally, VMIAC include their membership in decision-making processes, including what format an event or activity should be in.

VMIAC’s continued sensitivity to COVID even after restrictions have lifted is a valuable lesson. They remind us that these changes are not ‘back to normal’, but ‘COVID normal’, which still brings a lot of unknowns.

When to try these tips:

  • With young people showing reluctance to engage or experiencing social anxiety
  • To reach young people in regional locations
  • To reach disabled young people
  • When you want to have a proactive conversation with young people that empowers them to speak up and help you advocate for them

Healthcare settings generally need stricter COVID-safety protocols, with less flexibility for participants’ choice. Victoria still requires both workers and visitors aged 8 and over to wear a face mask inside a hospital, and hospital may also apply their own additional COVID-safety settings. As an additional precaution this winter, healthcare workers are also required to have had three COVID vaccine doses. All of these factors must be considered by youth services within health settings.

Harry Brown (he/him) manages the Chronic Illness Peer Support (ChIPS) program at the Royal Children’s Hospital, a program for young people with a chronic medical illness to explore their lived experience through music, art, games, discussions and camps. Participants have the option to enter the program either through an eight-week group, or two-day intensive intake groups.

Currently, ChIPS’ COVID safety measures include:

  • Creating their own guidelines alongside the general state health guidelines
  • Requiring that young people attending their events are either fully vaccinated or have a medical exemption
  • Considering COVID-safe practices when meeting in-person – for example, outdoors or socially distanced
  • Sending a reminder text message before every in-person event. Their script is: ‘Please don’t come if you have tested positive to COVID in the last 7 days, are a close contact of a current positive case or have signs or symptoms of COVID. Please wear a mask [for those attending].”

ChIPS have been easing back into in-person events with a hybrid model, under the advice and guidance of their reference committee, which is a voluntary group of 20 young people supported by staff and mentors. Harry describes a roughly 60-20-10-10 split in preferences within the reference committee:

  • 60% want to get back to face-to-face as soon as possible for the socialising opportunity
  • 20% are happy with hybrid - they have easy travel options, and also find online meetings productive.
  • 10% want to stay online due to convenience; they either live rurally or generally have more difficulty travelling.
  • 10% are concerned about COVID and are not ready to connect face-to-face.

These diverse preferences led the group to decide on the current hybrid model. Notably, this result considers everyone’s preferences, including those in the minority.

ChIPS recently hosted a well-attended social outing to Melbourne Zoo, as well as their first hybrid reference committee meeting. It was a success, with young people attending both in-person and online via Zoom. “We are lucky to have access to a functional conference space fit for purpose, outside of the ‘lockdown’ section of the hospital,” Harry says. “My advice is to listen to the young people you work with and get creative with the resources at your disposal.”

Additionally, the ChIPS staff have increased focus on their individual supports. Harry says that the staff have a running list of young people who may need extra support – whether that’s “to attend program events and activities, or we know they are going through a difficult time with their mental or physical health”. This looks like regular check-ins via phone, email or messages, depending on what works best for the young people. “We are sometimes just checking in to see what other supports they have around them as well,” Harry shares.

The ChIPS program has been incredibly flexible and supportive of the young people involved in their programs. Their strategies promote safety both in a practical sense, but also in an emotional sense by creating several opportunities for the young people to make decisions. It’s also worth noting that the program has resources at their disposal, like a fit-for-purpose space and multiple staff members, that make this possible. If your service is not in this situation, consider a scaled back version of their approach.

When to try these tips:

  • Working in sensitive settings
  • Working with disabled or immunocompromised young people
  • If you have access to the space, technology, capacity and skills that allow for this flexibility

For programs that have several young people coming through with diverse needs that need to be accommodated

Local government

Several council youth services this year have been running both face-to-face and hybrid programs, with COVID infections still impacting their ability to run smoothly.

Wodonga City Council’s Youth Officer Janet Banda (she/her) says that Council’s current policy is to consider all possibilities of running a face-to-face program or event as much as possible. With COVID still rife in community, it can still interrupt their schedule from time to time. Janet shares, “depending on the type or size of event we might either still have lowered numbers in a face-to-face setting, with others via Teams/Zoom, or postpone it entirely until things have calmed down.”

Nevertheless, Wodonga’s Youth Services still consider it worthwhile “because that connection is needed… a lot of young people are missing that social connection with others and they’re missing those friendships.”

Janet also notes how “some [young people] thrive on face-to-face engagement,” and the ability to connect and check in remains important this year as COVID continues.

“After the time we have spent in lockdowns a lot of young people or just people in the community are feeling very isolated and lonely, and this impacts their mental health. So being able to run face-to-face events and programs gets people out, they are able to socialise, meet new people as well as grown their networks socially or professionally.”

Janet shared how Council evaluates how to deliver events:

  • Face-to-face events: as these are attended for the experience and social aspect, these events should have opportunities for socialising and for a unique experience.
  • Hybrid events: considerations that will lead to an online option include events running after 5pm, with a small venue, and if the program can be delivered both online and face-to-face.

In all cases, Janet notes that Council considers the most user-friendly option that will support the wellbeing of the community. She has found that online events allow people to join if they are not feeling well, and hybrid events can tend to have better attendance as people are more engaged when they feel they have an option to choose what suits their needs at the time.

Of course, the downside to consider is that you never know what outcome an event or program will have. With a hybrid event, nobody may end up showing at the face-to-face component and everyone attends online, which can be disappointing as resources may have been used at the venue.

Wodonga City Council’s experiences show how far some thoughtful evaluation at the planning stage can go for the success of an event. Despite the urgency to get up and plan several events, it’s a good reminder to go for quality over quantity, and to have a well-considered reason for every choice in the planning process.

When to try these tips:

  • If you’re trying to decide whether or not to add an online option to face-to-face events
  • To help you know what to consider in the planning stage
  • To help you decide how to allocate your resources
Employment and education

Government third dose mandates have been lifted for workers in education, however individual schools may still decide to require triple vaccination in their COVID-safety policies (and are entitled to do so). Youth workers who work within education settings, either regularly or occasionally, should check the requirements of their school/s.

Alice Ames (she/they) from Future Connect works with young people in Victoria’s western metro region to connect young people with education and training pathways. They have returned to schools to deliver in-person workshops and information sessions. Alice shares, “schools have been wanting us in person again because it helps to engage the students (we prefer it too!).”

Future Connect also continue to deliver some online workshops, however they are not delivering any programs in a hybrid model. This is due to concerns that it disadvantages some students, and it can be difficult to overcome tech challenges.

In terms of adapting the content of their programs, Future Connect have intentionally focused on strengths-based activities. Alice notes, “young people in our region have lost a lot of confidence over the last two years, so our ‘strengths-based’ approach looks to build up the young people, across all age groups we work with.” This includes activities like helping the young people understand their interests, strengths and work-ready skills, and giving them opportunities to practise talking about themselves so they have the confidence to look for and apply for jobs. Alice emphasises that these are simple but valuable activities that go a long way; COVID-safe adaptions must continue to consider the emotional and mental wellbeing of young people as the pandemic wears on.

This simple yet effective approach has allowed Future Connect to grow their offerings for COVID normal, while still incorporating lessons from lockdowns.

When to try these tips:

  • For re-engaging young people that have lost confidence with school or work
  • For planning events or programs with equitable and easy access for groups of students

As youth services and workers supporting young people, the pandemic has opened up many different options and opportunities for working with young people. Whether you choose to work face-to-face, hybrid or online, will depend on the sector you work in, the kinds of young people you work with, and the different needs of your young people.

Importantly, the needs of some young people may clash with what other young people want. This will continue to create new possibilities and innovations to support young people to be active, visible and valued in our communities.

This story is part of our Learning from COVID-19 series, featuring the creativity and adaptions of young people and youth workers. Check out our other stories or share your feedback.