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School and nursery closures: your work and pay questions answered

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19/03/2020
The government took the drastic decision to close schools and nurseries after Friday. For working parents, they will have many questions. Here’s what you need to know.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson yesterday announced schools, colleges and early years settings will close as part of the country’s ongoing response to coronavirus.

He said the closures will remain in place until further notice, except for vulnerable children and those of key workers. This means NHS staff, police and supermarket delivery drivers who need to be able to go to work to support the country’s fight against the virus.

Vulnerable children include those who have a social worker and those with Education, Health and Care Plans – a legal document that describes a child’s special educational needs and the support they require.

Registered early years providers, including childminders, private schools, nurseries and sixth forms should also follow this guidance.

The government said it will provide financial support for these settings as required.

However, what does this mean for working parents? Our Q&A includes some of the common questions you may have:

Q) Key workers – who else is include?

A) You can see the full list of key workers here.

Q) I can work from home currently but once schools and nurseries close, I will struggle with childcare. Can I ask for flexibility or reduced hours?

A) Employees should not be expected to work while caring for their children, according to Russell Dann, associate at Clarkslegal.

He says many employees’ work patterns in normal times involve doing some work early in the morning before taking children to school and in the evening after the children have gone to bed.

“It may be that employees are able to do a few hours of work each day, particularly where children are older. If that is possible, because the alternative is for unpaid leave only, it may be relatively attractive to employees and employers to agree that employees work a few hours a day and their pay is pro rata’d accordingly.”

Q) What will happen to my pay if I can’t carry out my usual tasks?

A) Leave to deal with unforeseen circumstances involving children is covered by the statutory right to a reasonable amount of unpaid dependant leave, Dann explains.

Usually, this only covers one or two days while alternative care arrangements are made. However, in the current circumstances, he says it’s not realistic to expect parents to find alternatives: unless they are designated key workers, all childcare providers will be closed.

“The real risk is that people have no financial alternative but to rely on grandparents to provide emergency childcare, despite the risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 increasing sharply for the over 60s, and again for the over 70s,” he says.

Dann adds that some employers will decide to be more generous and pay for these periods of leave. “They will have to be careful because, in two-parent families, those employers may end up footing the entire bill.

“For children of a designated key worker, the child can attend school even if only one parent is a key worker.”

Q) Can I be dismissed during these times because I can’t do my job?

A) Employees are protected from dismissal for taking a reasonable amount of time off for dependant leave, says Dann. “Again, in normal circumstances the question of not being able to fulfil the job does not arise because the periods of leave are only a few days. In the present circumstances, businesses are struggling to pay wages or have enough work for employees remote working so in most cases there will not be much incentive to dismiss an employee on an extended period of unpaid leave.”

Q) I can’t work from home and have children. What can I do and what will happen to my pay and job?

A) Dann says the right is to unpaid leave (as detailed above). “Of course, parents could take accrued holiday, though Statutory Sick Pay would not apply,” he says.

Q) I’m a freelancer/self-employed. What are my options?

A) Unfortunately freelancers/self-employed are not covered by the right to unpaid leave, says Dann, but freelancers are only paid when they can work anyway.

Q) I’m still in my probation period at work, should I be worried?

A) Dann says these workers are entitled to unpaid leave. It covers all employees from day one of employment, whether they work full-time, part-time or are permanent, temporary or fixed-term staff.

Q) Do I have to continue paying nursery fees if my child is at home?

A) Parents should check their individual contracts for more information or contact their provider to check this with them.

Schools will continue to receive their budgets from the government for the coming year as usual regardless of any periods of partial or complete closure. This means they will be able to continue to pay all their staff, and meet their other regular financial commitments.

The government is due to put in place new measures to reimburse schools for reasonable additional costs they face in order to stay safely staffed as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

As a result, nurseries are expected to take a reasonable and proportionate approach to fees charged to parents.

Aman Johal, lawyer and director of consumer action law firm, Your Lawyers, says unless there’s a contractual obligation, parents shouldn’t have to pay nursery or private school fees while they are closed.

“The current climate means many are facing financial struggles and these people must be protected, especially if the schools their children attend don’t offer an e-learning alternative. These nurseries and private schools may continue to ask for financial support during this period, but this should be voluntary and not forced upon parents.”

Q) My child is at university. Do they have to continue to pay tuition fees?

A) The current government guidelines state that students will have to continue to pay tuition fees even with universities closing.

Johal says: “These institutions should offer remote learning opportunities for students such as virtual lectures and seminars. All learning material can be shared online, and students can access this as and when they wish. The Open University has for years operated distance learning effectively and there is no evidence to suggest that universities cannot currently offer a high level of service.”

He adds that if students believe their ability to study has been significantly impacted by the closure, then there could be grounds to ask for money back.

“However, they will still have to initially pay their student fees and they cannot suddenly stop payment through the student finance company,” he says.

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