School is Back in Session…Or is It?

Many parents look forward to this time of year; when the leaves on the trees begin to turn, the summer heat begins to subside and, most importantly, their kids go back to school.  The end of summer usually means that parents are no longer looking for school alternatives, such as summer camps and educational programs to keep their children occupied (and supervised). However, for most school districts this year, COVID-19 has thrown a “monkey wrench” into the normal routine and is causing schools and parents to re-think what it means to go “back to school.” 

Heading Back to School Amid COVID-19?

In March of this year school districts across the country announced that they would be shutting down until the end of the school year due to COVID-19.  The speed at which the pandemic developed meant that many schools did not have well defined distance learning plans in place, meaning that for the most part parents were in charge of managing their children’s education at home for the remainder of the school year.

Now in preparation for the fall return, many school systems determined early on that upon reopening, learning would remain virtual. But having had time to prepare, virtual instruction in the fall would be better defined and structured, meaning parents would not be replacing teachers.  But even with more structured virtual curriculum and plans, parents still have a dilemma — they will still need to provide supervision for their children even when they are actively engaged in online learning at home.

Not surprisingly, a large majority of parents also work outside the home. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Labor, it is estimated that 41%t of workers between the ages of 20 and 54 have a child at home. It is also estimated that single parents make up approximately 30% of the workforce.

Given the length of time that COVID-19 has lasted, it is quite possible that a large portion of working parents have already exhausted the twelve (12) weeks of paid FMLA leave that was allocated by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) as well as any paid time off they may have accumulated through their employer. Finally, although there has been a push to allow telecommuting, some jobs are just not capable of being performed remotely 100% of the time, or even at all.

What are Parents’ and Employers’ Options?

While Americans have been adapting to the “new normal,” parents with school age children have been particularly challenged to adapt to a “virtual” education system that resembles nothing they are used to. This challenge also affects employers. If a working parent holds a critical position within your organization, what alternatives are you prepared and able to provide to account for the fact that employees’ minor children must remain home during the school year? The following are some considerations that employers and parents could contemplate:

  • Shared oversight responsibilities – many parents are teaming up with other parents to ‘share the load’. Parents are working together to share the responsibilities of monitoring children during the school day as they engage in their virtual learning sessions. For example, five families “team up” and each family is responsible for one day of the work week. With this solution, companies could offer the option for the parent to do a compressed workweek of four ten-hour days so that the one day of the week when it is “their turn,” they can fully focus on the children versus toggling back and forth between the children and their phone or laptop. This solution is a particularly good option for positions that are not able to telecommute.
  • Bringing children to work – with a dramatically increased percentage of the workforce now telecommuting, many employers are finding they have more than enough office space to not only socially distance, but to also set up employees’ children in a private area to participate in their virtual learning during the work day. This option may not work for all and employers; they need to consider how children in the office may affect the rest of their staff and operating procedures.  For example, children are notoriously bad when it comes to cleanliness, so it may be wise to institute strict policies regarding wearing masks, hand washing, using hand sanitizer, and socially distancing. Also, what type of on-line access and equipment will they need? Does the office space have Wi-fi that children will be able to use; will they need a badge to access the worksite; or does your office have “restricted areas” where children will not be allowed?  Will the company allow the children to use the company’s phones, tablets, computers, etc. or will they require the parents to bring that equipment to the office with them?
  • Telecommuting – for employees whose position can be done remotely, telecommuting is always a great option. But before simply telling your employees to work from home, there are some things to consider. First, what type of electronic equipment and software does your company utilize?  Are they available on a remote basis?  It is far easier for an employee to take their cell phone and laptop home than it is their landline desk phone and desktop computer.  Or does the employee already have a personal laptop or desktop at home that they could utilize?  If so, how will companies ensure that their employees’ electronic devices can use the company’s software or safely accessing the company’s servers?

In addition, some employees may not have a home internet connection or they may have a weak connection. Would the company consider helping to rectify this situation through monetary means? Finally, will the employee’s work hours remain the same as if they were in the office, or will the company allow flexibility to account for the fact that the employee may need to be periodically engaged with their child for their distance learning? A regular 9 to 5 schedule for the telecommuting employee may not be feasible. Could the company offer flex time?

  • Combinations of all the above – most school systems are allocating four days of learning per week with a fifth day designated as a teacher workday. This means that on one day of the week, the child will not have a structured learning schedule. In this scenario, perhaps the employee telecommutes, has a compressed work week and utilizes a flex time option. All these challenges do not have a one size fits all solution. Employers and employees need to work together to find a solution that works best for them.  And while employers should be cognizant to treat all employees fairly and equally, there may not be a single policy or practice that is a good fit for all employees (particularly since different school systems are utilizing varying approaches to distance learning).  Companies should offer flexibility to its employees, but also be prepared that “flexibility” might look a little different for different employees based on their situation.

Conclusion

Everyone benefits if companies continue to grow and prosper. Employees are an intricate piece of that puzzle. Therefore, employers should attempt to find ways to work with their employees during this pandemic to help provide for their continued employment. In addition, your employees’ children will be our nation’s next generation of leaders.  It is in our collective best interest to find solutions that allow employees enough flexibility to still provide supervision for their school-age children who will, for the foreseeable future, be engaged in distance learning.

C2 provides strategic HR outsourcing to clients who want to develop optimal workforce strategies and solutions to allow them to be more competitive and profitable. C2 blog posts are intended for educational and informational purposes only.