COVID-19 school shutdown: what employees and employers need to know

Following yesterday’s national lockdown announcement that the majority of primary and secondary school pupils will learn remotely until February half term, Kate Palmer of Peninsula explains what parents and employers need to know about remote working and childcare arrangements.

School Closure Employer FAQ

Can children go to school during the UK national lockdown?

With UK coronavirus cases increasing rapidly, it’s been announced that colleges, primary (reception onwards) and secondary schools will remain closed for most children until February half term, with pupils asked to learn remotely.

Early Years settings (including nurseries and childminders) will remain open, and colleges, primary and secondary schools will remain open only for vulnerable children and the children of ‘critical workers.’ A full list of critical workers can be found on GOV.UK.

Are parents entitled to time off work because of school closures?

Where a parent is not self-isolating but is faced with unforeseen childcaring issues, they are legally entitled to unpaid time off for dependants. This employment right is intended to be for unforeseen emergencies only, and the coronavirus will likely fall under it. 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 where this unpaid leave can be taken includes 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 do take time off for dependants, they should be aware that, as well as it being 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 up to 2 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. However, employers may want to consider the coronavirus situation when establishing principles around a ‘reasonable’ amount of time.

What options are there for employees with childcare issues?

Where it’s clear that a longer period off may be needed, employers may find it useful to talk to employees about how an extended period of time off will be dealt with. Options could include:

  • employees temporarily working from home (if they are not currently)
  • flexible working arrangements being put in place
  • employees being furloughed

It should be noted that there is no legal right to be furloughed; it’s solely used at the employer’s discretion.

What should you do if your child is asked to self-isolate?

Although medical experts say that generally children will not get seriously ill from catching COVID-19, they can still spread it to other people who may be more vulnerable. Because of this, children of critical workers may still be sent home from school to isolate for two weeks if it is believed that they have come into contact with the virus. This could impact a parent’s ability to leave the house.

The government has made it clear that a parent will not be classed as ‘self-isolating’, even if their child has been asked to do so, unless their child:

  • exhibits symptoms or tests positive for the coronavirus
  • they are experiencing symptoms or have tested positive
  • they have returned from a non-quarantine exempt country abroad
  • or they have been told by the NHS to self-isolate

The normal rules on self-isolation will apply if a parent is told to self-isolate. Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) will be payable to eligible employees, regardless of an individual’s parental status, except in cases where self-isolation is necessary as a result of travel to a non-quarantine exempt country.

About the author

Kate Palmer is HR Advice and Consultancy Director at global employment law consultancy at Peninsula.

See also

What is flexible working?

Employment law: what to expect in 2021 and beyond

What is the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme?

Find out more

National lockdown: Stay at Home (GOV.UK)

Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) (GOV.UK)

Critical workers and vulnerable children who can access schools or educational settings (GOV.UK)

When to self-isolate and what to do (NHS)

Image: Getty Images

Publication date: 5 January 2021

Any opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and the author alone, and does not necessarily represent that of The Gazette.