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School closures: What it means for working parents

Paloma Kubiak
Written By:
Paloma Kubiak

While schools in areas with high coronavirus cases have been told they can send pupils home before the official start of the Christmas holidays, parents in Greenwich have been left confused.

Essex County Council said headteachers could decide to close schools from this week after Basildon was revealed as having England’s third-highest coronavirus cases of 433 per 100,000 people in the week to 5 December.

But on Sunday, Greenwich Council’s Labour leader, Danny Thorpe, posted an open letter informing parents that he has asked all schools in the borough to close after Monday as they move to online learning for the duration of the term.

The exception was for key worker children and those with specific needs, as was the case in the first national lockdown.

However, the Conservative government last night issued a directive to Greenwich Council stating that schools in the borough must stay open. Given the threat of legal action, Greenwich council reneged on its decision and said schools must now stay open as it didn’t want to spend taxpayer funds fighting in the courts.

While it’s unclear whether schools in other areas will have the ability to send pupils home ahead of the Christmas holidays, if working parents find themselves in this situation, what are their options when it comes to their jobs, time off and pay?

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula explained that employees have a right to take time off for dependants if there is a breakdown in the normal childcare arrangements for their children.

“This means they have a right to take a reasonable amount of time off work to arrange new childcare; its purpose is not to give parents time off to look after their child for as long as their normal arrangements are not available. This time off work is unpaid, so employees may wish to seek to agree on other ways to cover the time, for example working from home where possible, a short notice annual leave request, or a change to their normal working times,” she said.

Palmer added that although the right to time off for dependants exists, parents and carers need to meet certain criteria.

“This includes the requirement for employees to notify their employer as soon as possible of their absence, the reason and the expected length. If employees do not do this, employers can class the absence as unauthorised. However, employers may choose to add in some leniency dependent on the circumstances. However, it would not be reasonable for an employer to require the employee to attend work if it meant that children would be left unsupervised at home,” Palmer said.

Employees who have caring responsibilities as a result of coronavirus, including looking after children whose school has closed, can be furloughed.

But Palmer warned that furlough is used at an employer’s discretion so while employees may ask to be furloughed, they do not have a right to be.

She added: “Employers should discuss the need to take time off to look after children in this scenario as it may be that a compromise can be reached which means the employee does not need an extended period of time off work, e.g. if the care of the children can be shared with their partner.

“However, this may not be possible for all employees and social distancing restrictions and shielding rules may mean that wider childcare options aren’t available. All possible support solutions should be explored; the more the employee can work during the disrupted period, the better,” she said.