Back to work but not back to school

By the HR DeptThe reopening of schools to more children plays an important role in restarting the economy, but has understandably been the subject of much debate. This week's blog looks at what this might mean for employers who are getting back to business.

In a three-step COVID-19 recovery strategy launched last week, the government revealed a projected timeline of which businesses and areas of society can open and when. The guidance is subject to public health and the ability to manage and maintain a COVID secure environment.

Some businesses are permitted to open sooner than others. Some sectors, for example education, could be operating – but at a much lower capacity.

The reopening of schools to more children plays an important role in restarting the economy, by allowing many people to return to work. However, the proposed timeline to reopen schools has been the subject of much debate, as parents, teachers and unions have raised concerns over safety.

This is likely to have a major knock-on effect for many businesses nationwide who are preparing for employees to return to work.

There is much more to dissect from the COVID recovery strategy and we will continue to delve into the detail in our beyond lockdown series. For now though, let’s look at how the proposed schooling timetable could impact your plans for getting back to business.

What is the plan for reopening schools?

The UK’s COVID-19 recovery strategy states that the rate of infection remains too high to allow the reopening of schools for all pupils. Schools continue to be open for vulnerable children and children of key workers. However, it has been reported that attendance is low. This suggests that some parents either do not feel comfortable sending their kids back to school yet, or household work patterns mean that one parent is caring for the children whilst the other works.

The second stage of the plan for schools aims to have reception, year one and year six children in England back at school in small numbers from 1st June, to maximise their time with teachers before the summer holidays.

Currently there are no plans to reopen secondary schools this year, although some face-to-face time will be encouraged for year 10 and 12 students to help them prepare for exams next year.

At the time of writing, there are no plans to reopen schools to all pupils in Scotland and Wales.

How might this affect people management?

Those who employ parents are going to need to consider the impact that this situation might have on their employees. Will working parents be able to return to the workplace when needed?

Many schools may still be closed to most students when businesses are bringing employees back to work. Additionally, some parents may not feel it is safe to send their children back to school. The Department for Education has stated that there will be no penalties should this be the case.

Employees are entitled to a reasonable amount of unpaid time off work to deal with emergencies involving dependants, such as arranging childcare at short notice. But if schools are not accessible and friends/family are in isolation, finding someone to watch the kids could prove to be a real challenge.

As parents try to maintain a good work/life balance during trying times, employers can help in a number of ways. This can both support employees and ensure minimal disruption to the business. By pre-empting potential problems before they arise, it is possible to find a suitable work around.

HR solutions during school closures

Flexibility is key. It has already been recommended that employers introduce staggered start times or shift work to assist social distancing. Flexibility of working hours can also be of great help to those with family commitments.

Working from home wherever possible is also still highly recommended. But those with young children may find it hard to focus or complete deadline driven tasks. Offering reduced hours or seeing if certain tasks can be re-assigned can help.

For roles that cannot be done from home, sharing your return to work safety plans may reassure those who are worried for their own health and safety.

Alternatively, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been extended until October, and you may find that putting some staff on furlough leave is the right solution for your business. There are many rules involved, such as employees being prohibited from doing any work whilst furloughed. So please ask us if you are seeking further understanding of how to utilise the scheme.

School staff can already be tested for coronavirus and the government has now extended testing capacity to include anyone over the age of five showing symptoms. Sharing this news with employees could provide some peace of mind about sending their kids back to school.

You may find that there are a few bumps in the road to reopening your business, as both you and your employees adjust to a very different way of working. Make time for mental health by listening to employees concerns and remember that we are here to listen to yours.