Coronavirus: how can HR support parents if schools close?

Experts say flexible working will be key but warn of difficulties offering this long term, particularly for some roles and within smaller businesses

Around the world, governments are ordering the closure of schools in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus, also known as Covid-19.

French officials announced on Friday (6 March) that nurseries and schools in two areas particularly affected by coronavirus infections – one north of Paris and the other in the northeastern part of the country – will close for two weeks.

In the UK, which saw its third coronavirus fatality and the number of confirmed cases rise to 278 over the weekend, the government is expected to announce ‘social distancing’ measures to delay the spread of the virus. Professor Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, warned schools might have to shut “for quite a long period of time, probably more than two months”.

Already a number of schools across England and Wales have closed, including Sandbach High School (pictured), which closed and sent pupils home as a precaution after staff tested positive for coronavirus. (It has since reopened.)

For employers, this means parents in their workforces could be faced with childcare difficulties, said Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory at Peninsula. “This is no doubt going to place a significant amount of pressure on working parents and how the company responds to this may end up being crucial for ongoing employment relationships with all those affected,” she said.

Palmer advised that, although employers are under no obligation to allow staff to work flexibly, allowing this at least until the threat of coronavirus has passed, can “help keep employees working while at the same time assisting them in looking after their children if they need to”.

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She added that using emergency ‘dependant leave’ can give parents a short period off to look after their children or deal with an unexpected problem or emergency. But this was unlikely to be sufficient if schools remained shut for a long time.

Hannah Disselbeck, employment lawyer for Fieldfisher, said most employers were quite reasonable about giving staff time off for childcare emergencies and would continue to do so if there were coronavirus-related school closures. But with increasing numbers working remotely, employers would have to consider how engaged their wider workforce was, she said.

“The bigger question for employers is: how do you keep workforce productivity up? How do you ensure your employees’ wellbeing without putting the profitability of the business at risk?” Disselbeck said. “If this becomes a widespread problem and people can't work from home, then it may just not be feasible for businesses to provide any pay, and then I think you'd be looking at: can you take holiday to cover a shortfall?”

Employers may also need to consider alternatives to paid leave – for example, making loans available to employees – if the cost to business of staff taking time off because of childcare responsibilities became too much. This situation could go on for a long time, she warned, which would make it infeasible to cover leave with holiday pay.

However, the outbreak could have long-term silver linings for employers and working parents, said Joeli Brearley, founder of campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed. She said the government’s advice to employers to let staff work from home in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak could “accidentally start the flexible working revolution”.

“This is something that parents want and need, and this will be an opportunity for employees to show their employers that remote working can work, and it does work,” Brearley explained. “But just as when chicken pox hits, if and when it does, then parents need the flexibility to be able to look after their children and not have to worry about their job security and paying their bills while they do so.”

She said any requests to take time off will be last minute and “could be messy” in terms of enacting responsive policies. But now is the time to show working parents support as businesses and staff tackle the challenges of the coronavirus together, she said.

But Tracey Hudson, director at The HR Dept, warned many parents would not be able to work from home or take unpaid time off because of the nature of their role, particularly with limited information currently on how long the outbreak will last.

“If you think about the hospitality industry, for example, you've got people who are in jobs where they need to be there, and they can't work from home,” Hudson said. “They are worrying about how long the school is going to be closed or if they will have to self-isolate, and this is all unpaid stuff.” 

Hudson said larger businesses might have the infrastructure and funds to cope with long-term remote working in relation to school closures, but smaller businesses would struggle to cope as many cannot afford to have staff out of the office for weeks.

Under current legislation, parents are only entitled to up to 18 weeks’ unpaid parental leave for each child before their child is 18.