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What do school closures mean for working parents?

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Written by: Emma Lunn
05/01/2021
The third national lockdown means schools in England and Scotland will be closed until the February half-term at the earliest.

After weeks of indecision, prime minister Boris Johnson finally took the decision to close schools in England, alongside other national lockdown measures, last night.

Although medical experts insist that children generally don’t get seriously ill from catching Covid-19, they can still spread it to other people in their household who may be more vulnerable.

Schools have been told to switch to online learning. The exception is for children of key workers and those with specific needs, as was the case in the first national lockdown.

What help are working parents entitled to?

Schools being closed leaves parents, both those working from home and those going out to work, with a childcare conundrum.

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, said: “Where a parent is not self-isolating but are faced with unforeseen child-caring issues, 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, of 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,” said Palmer, “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.

Call for working parents to be furloughed

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has called for employers to furlough working parents. However, there is no automatic right to be furloughed, it is used at the employer’s discretion.

The TUC said the furlough scheme allows bosses to put parents on ‘standby’ if they can’t work due to a lack of childcare. Furlough is available from a minimum of seven days – which would allow mums and dads to share childcare over the coming weeks – and can also be given on a part-time basis.

It also suggested that the self-employed should have access to the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) to help them avoid falling into financial difficulty and debt while caring for children.

Self-isolation payments

Some working parents who are told by NHS Test and Trace to self-isolate could be eligible for the £500 Test and Trace Support Payment scheme.

The scheme aims to help low income workers in England in receipt of certain benefits who’ve been told to self-isolate.

But confusion remains around claims when it’s a child, rather than a parent, who needs to self-isolate at home and can’t go to their normal childcare arrangements. In this situation a parent in England who can’t work from home and isn’t furloughed, but needs to stay at home with their child,  isn’t eligible for the £500 payment.

The rules are different in Scotland and Wales, with both devolved administrations extending the support to parents on low incomes whose children need to self-isolate.

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