Coronavirus schools shutdown: what do employees and employers need to know?

HR expert Kate Palmer from Peninsula UK advises on what parents can do if their schools are forced to close due to Covid-19.

Mum helps daughter with homeschooling at the table

 

With UK coronavirus cases on the increase across the country and the NHS under immense pressure, most working parents are having to revert to homeschooling.

In September, schools reopened across England in an attempt to kickstart the nation back to some form of normality. Since pupils of all ages were allowed to return to school, parents were able to return to work gradually. However, with thousands of children being sent home after outbreaks in schools and now tougher measures coming in as the spread of the new variant coronavirus, the next puzzle piece in the coronavirus jigsaw pertains to parental rights where employees must keep their children at home because their schools are closed again.

The Government has made clear that a parent will not be classed as ‘self-isolating’ even if their child has been asked to do so unless their child:

  • exhibits symptoms or tests positive for the coronavirus
  • they are experiencing symptoms or have tested positive
  • they have returned from a non-quarantine exempt country abroad
  • or they have been told by the NHS to self-isolate

The normal rules on self-isolation will apply if a parent in your workforce is self-isolating. Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will be payable to eligible employees, regardless of an individual’s parental status, except in cases where self-isolation is necessary as a result of travel to a non-quarantine exempt country.

Where a parent is not self-isolating, they are legally entitled to unpaid time off for dependants. The employment right to this time off is intended to be for unforeseen emergencies only, which the coronavirus will likely fall under. The law stipulates that time off for dependants can be taken specifically where a dependant has either fallen ill, is injured or is assaulted.

Other circumstances in which this time can be taken include where arrangements for the provision of care of a dependant need to be made, where normal arrangements have been disrupted. This would include the unexpected closure of an employee’s child’s school. Currently, there is no qualifying service period required to entitle an employee to take time off work of this nature so employees who have just started a new role can still take this time off.

If parents are to take time off for dependants, they should be aware that, aside from the fact that it is unpaid, they are required to inform their employer as soon as reasonably practicable about the absence, the reason for it and the anticipated length. Employers should not reasonably refuse this time off. Employees have a right to take a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off, which is generally taken to be up to two days per instance. This is because the point of the time off is to make other arrangements for childcare, rather than time off actually to look after the child. However, employers may want to consider the coronavirus situation when establishing principles around a ‘reasonable’ amount of time.

Where it is clear that a longer period of time off may be needed, employers may find it beneficial to open up communication with employees about how an extended period of time off will be dealt with. It may be that employees are permitted to work from home where possible, or a temporary period of other flexible working options arranged. Employees who have caring responsibilities arising from coronavirus can be furloughed. However, there is no right to be furloughed; it is used at the employer’s discretion.



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