Back to school challenges

Despite the big return to school, there are still problems for many working parents of school-aged children. Wraparound care may be scarce and Covid-related restrictions might make it difficult for parents to go back to full days in the workplace. What are your rights?

education and school concept little student girl studying at school


Even though schools are now back, there are still many challenges for parents who want to return to working outside their home and that will continue as infection rates rise and the government guidance evolves amid local lockdowns and other restrictions.

Firstly, although schools are back and operating all sorts of different safety regimes, many schools have restrictions on breakfast and after school clubs and a significant number won’t be reopening them at all due to fears about mixing year groups. At the very least they will need to fix who is going to be in them so they can prepare safety-wise. That means booking ahead.

So what if you have to work a full day and you can’t drop or pick up at school start times, bearing in mind that these are being staggered so families with children in different year groups may take longer to do drop-offs and pick-ups? Can you get someone to pick up your child?

In England, childminders and nannies are able to pick up and drop children so long as they adhere to the Government guidance.

If you are in a bubble with another single family member or a single parent family in a bubble with another household, you can share the pick-ups and drop-offs with them. From 13th September, no more than six people from two different households can meet up indoors or outdoors, but they should social distance from each other. The same holds for Wales [but only indoors] and Scotland, but children under 12 are not included in the six in Scotland and Wales and in Scotland only two households can meet. In Northern Ireland the rules vary across the region. The Government guidance on grandparents says: “People from two different households can meet indoors, which enables you to spend time with your grandchildren. At this time, we still advise that people from different households avoid close contact so childcare should only be provided if it is possible to socially distance from your grandchildren. If you have formed a support bubble with your grandchildren’s household, which is allowed if either you or they live in a ‘single adult household’, then there can be close contact and social distancing is not necessary.”

Many parents have been reliant on grandparents for picking up children from school so this could present significant problems to a full return to work. There are also local lockdowns in parts of the country where different restrictions are in operation.

Addressing school run problems

So what can you do if your employer is insisting you come back to your workplace full time when you need to be around to pick up your children? Possibilities include:

– If you have been furloughed in the past, ask to be put on part-time furlough so you can reduce your hours and still be paid. This will depend on your employer agreeing to do so and as the furlough scheme now requires some employer contribution they may be more reluctant to do so.

– Apply for flexible working. You could ask to reduce your hours temporarily on an informal basis. If you want something more formal where your rights are protected and your employer can only turn down your request citing one of eight different reasons, you can apply for flexible working, but be aware that if you change your hours that is a permanent change and you would need to wait at least a year to change your hours back. You could also try to negotiate some proportion of your week to be spent working from home, if this is possible.

– Use annual leave to enable you to be around to pick up and drop off a few days a week and share this with someone else in your bubble.

– Use free apps such as We Are Fetching to arrange with parents in your child’s year group to pick up your child and avoid mixing year groups – although parents will still have to abide by government guidance on distancing and hygiene and changes to how many people from different households can meet up indoors and outdoors.

Employment rights

Kate Palmer, Associate Director of HR Advisory at HR experts Peninsula, outlines the issue for employers around getting people back to the workplace.

She says: “Employees can be reluctant to go back to the office for many reasons, and the employer must allow their staff to talk through any concerns they have. Provided the move to working from home was not implemented as permanent measure at the start of lockdown, employers can expect that their staff will return to the office under their instruction, but should approach the return sensitively.

“The most important aspect for employers is ensuring that their workplace has been made Covid-secure and sharing with the workforce the health and safety adjustments that have been made. Following Government guidance on social distancing etc is key to the return to the office as a failure to do so may breach health and safety laws; to require employees to return to a non-Covid secure workplace may be unlawful.”

On childcare, she says: “Although childcare problems should decrease as the schools begin to re-open, this will not solve all childcare issues where wider family and friends are still unable to help out. Employers should be alive to ongoing issues with returning to the office and appreciate that the impact of Covid-19 is still keenly felt despite a phased return to normality in wider society. Dismissing employees for unreasonably refusing to return to the office may well be lawful; but, if a claim of unfair dismissal were brought, the employment tribunal would analyse the specific facts of the case to determine ‘reasonableness’, which will be different in each case.”


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