Employers have been warned not to expect the return of children to schools to mark a return to business as usual, as ministers hail the start of the academic year as a milestone on the path to recovery.
Millions of pupils will be returning to classrooms in England and Wales this week after an unprecedented shutdown because of the outbreak – one that forced many parents to change their working hours, use holiday, take unpaid leave or even go on furlough to provide childcare and homeschooling.
Many parents have welcomed the reopening of schools, with a poll of 500 parents by Yoopies finding 76 per cent were in favour of sending children back in September. Gavin Williamson, education secretary, told MPs in parliament yesterday (1 September) that reopening schools would be a “massive milestone” for the country.
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Similarly, the work and pensions secretary, Thérèse Coffey, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that schools reopening was “important for the children, for the teachers and for parents to help them get back fully into the working environment”.
Sophie Walker, chief executive of the Young Women’s Trust, echoed Williamson in saying this week marked a “significant milestone for parents”, many of whom had been juggling childcare, homeschooling and work during lockdown. “We know women took on the lion's share of childcare over the last few months and that this has had a major impact on their ability to work their normal hours or hold down their job,” Walker said.
However, Walker also warned that many households that had suffered financially during lockdown might now also be struggling with school-related costs – including new uniforms and travel to school. She added many were also still anxious about what would happen in the event of more coronavirus spikes.
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“Parents have myriad unanswered questions: what happens if there is a local lockdown, will I be forced to take statutory sick pay if my child or I get ill and will my employer be understanding about the uncertainty?" Walker said.
Speaking to People Management, Mubeen Bhutta, joint head of policy and influencing at Working Families, said children returning to school this week would certainly make life easier for many working parents. But, she said: “It is too simplistic to say that schools reopening just means a return to business as usual. There’s going to be changes to the school day for public health reasons.”
Many schools had introduced staggered drop-off times and new rules about transport to school, meaning many parents would still need flexibility during the working day to drop off and pick up children at unusual times, she explained.
She added there were also “huge questions” around wraparound care, such as breakfast and after school clubs, and other extracurricular activities before and after school many working parents depended on. “The 9 to 3 school day doesn’t really fit with the working day so these are the extra things that parents rely on… There are question marks around what will be available and when and what it will look like,” she said.
Many parents were also highly anxious about the health of their children as they returned to school, said Jamie Mackenzie, director at Sodexo Engage. “Some working parents will be experiencing extreme anxieties as worries about their child’s health and safety creep in, alongside the strain of working during a pandemic,” he said. “Employers need to support their people through these emotions and work together to get to the other side of this crisis”
On top of this, many parents are also just generally reluctant to return to business as usual following lockdown. A survey of 1,000 parents by Working Families found nine out of 10 wanted job flexibility to continue after lockdown.
“This is a real opportunity to think about doing something differently. But I think it’s also important not to think back to school means back to work, back to the office and back to everything as it was in March,” said Bhutta, urging employers to have “grown up conversations” with parents about their needs going forward.
“A lot of the time what it comes down to is a sensible conversation between people and their line managers about what they need, how they’re going to get the job done and what support is available,” said Bhutta.