Last reviewed 16 June 2020

The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced that schools will no longer be obligated to fully reopen before the summer holidays. Rather, schools will be given the autonomy to decide which groups of students are to return. Currently, reception, year one and year six have returned in England; now, schools can determine based on their capabilities how many more years can return. Opeyemi Ogundeji, researcher and employment law writer at Croner-i, explores some of these issues in more detail below.

This development comes as the threat of coronavirus overshadows plans to relieve parents of the pressure that comes with childcare issues, and as the lack of correct PPE which has left teachers worried about the possibility of a second wave of infections. Although schools have taken precautions to limit classroom sizes to 15 students or less, with some schools splitting students across two classrooms if needed, headteachers have posed the argument of their incapability to house more students if schools were to be forced to reopen to all primary year groups.

This turnaround may be welcomed by primary schools across England — after the General Secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union labelled the move as “ill-considered, premature and unworkable” — but it may pose considerable problems for employers who may be depending on their full workforce returning to work as lockdown rules are eased. Problems which may continue for the foreseeable future.

The remainder of the UK

Employers with branches in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may not be as adversely affected. Welsh schools are set to open for limited periods during the week on 29 June to all ages, while Scottish schools will reopen on 11 August, and schools in Northern Ireland are set for a phased return in August for students preparing for exams (or those moving to post-primary school years). Others in Northern Ireland will return in September.

Why employers in England might be worried

Even though it has been reported that secondary schools will be reopening in September, until the Government announces concrete plans as to when primary schools are set to reopen, employers may find themselves juggling a reduced workforce as childcare options become a nationwide concern. This is because employers may have already begun making plans to return furloughed staff, or those working from home as a result of the pandemic, back to the office.

The consequence of this news on employers lies mainly in the financial and/or practicality issues that could arise from employees being forced to request their annual/unpaid leave, around the same time as each other, or refusal to return because of childcare issues.

What employers can do

It may be wise for employers to begin forecasting how many of their employees may be affected by this news and come up with suitable solutions for both their business interests and said employees.

A solution may be for employers to:

  • keep affected employees working from home who are already doing so

  • implement working from home options for affected employees, if possible

  • explore flexible working options which could range from flexible start and finish times to part-time work

  • depending on the number of employees that are affected, and their roles within the business, have their remaining workforce take up any workload while annual leave, parental leave, or any other leave that the employer provides is approved for those affected by the news; the downside to this is that employers will need to factor in the likelihood that those who do not have childcare needs may also want to take annual leave during these summer months, especially as travel restrictions are eased both nationally and internationally

  • outsource to external employees, temporary cover staff or contractors

  • redirect workload internally to staff members from different areas of the business who may be experienced for the role and have the time to carry out the duties accordingly

  • explore redundancy options if there is a sound business reason to do so; although, employers may not need to consider this option as the Job Retention Scheme will last until 31 October and should cover the months that employees will need to take off before schools are reopened — to reiterate, the Government have not yet disclosed when primary schools will be fully reopened, but it may follow the date that secondary schools are set to reopen in September.

Why this news might be good for employers

At this stage of the pandemic, employers may be well-equipped in handling some (or all) of the above solutions, therefore it should not be something that those employers will need to rush to implement.

Despite most employees no longer being able to be placed on furlough for the first time as the deadline for this has passed — on 10 June to satisfy the three-week furlough period — those who have already been furloughed can take advantage of the scheme, provided they meet all of the requirements for it, until 30 June. Employees can therefore still benefit from the furlough scheme for some time, which is good news if schools reopen before 31 October.

In light of the new update from Chancellor Rishi Sunak, it has been confirmed that those returning from parental, adoption, shared parental or bereavement leave can still be furloughed after the 10 June deadline if the employer has previously furloughed at least one employee. This is good news for employers whose employees may be returning from any of the above statutory leave and have a child or children in primary school.

Further, as school summer holidays are a regular yearly occurrence, pandemic notwithstanding, employers can take the same measures as they usually would during these times while finetuning it to reflect the longer periods they are needed for. However, it cannot be ignored that employers would usually have discretion in allowing employees to take leave at any given time, eg requests can be denied if considered on a “first come first serve” basis due to workload demands. Still, employers need to take care when considering rejecting leave requests as this may affect employee morale negatively.

It is always helpful to consider that these issues are beyond employees’ control and effective communication with affected employees will go a long way in maintaining high staff retention.