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School closures throughout the US and the world are creating a number of workplace challenges for employers and setting roadblocks in the recovery and re-opening of offices. For many parents, schools serve as childcare for their young ones during the week, allowing both parents to maintain full employment. With many school districts going partially or fully remote, which will require at least one parent to stay home unless alternative care is found, employers are faced with a number of problems, including the inability to retain talent and reopen offices.
One study, which aggregated school and community calendars in the US, found that 52% of elementary and high school students will attend school only virtually and just 25% will attend every day. The remaining 19% will have some form of hybrid schooling, combining online and in-person learning. 4% of districts remained undecided. This means that more than three out of four parents will need to make childcare plans for when their children are not going to be in school. Also, many believe this number is likely to increase. If cases spike in a second wave in the fall and winter, which is a widely held view from health experts and epidemiologists, the number of schools that are offering on-premise learning will decline, increasing the number of parents impacted.
Based on the employment rate for the 47 million parents with children under 12, and assuming at least one parent has to stay off work to provide childcare, Bloomberg Economics estimates that as many as 18 million Americans may put off looking for a job as long as schools are closed. School closures will impact more than just employers looking to hire new employees in the recovery. Companies trying to bring back existing employees into the office may also experience some reluctant individuals. In addition to their concerns about safety, some employees will not have childcare options that will afford them the ability to return to work. Employers may have to allow for remote work for longer than they originally had anticipated.
The way employers can best navigate the current environment will vary based on a number of different factors. First, companies should look at their specific geography. Are their school districts re-opening? If so, what is the infection level in the community? Are policies (e.g., mask ordinances, social gathering limitations, etc.) being implemented effectively in the community? This will provide guidance on how much their workforce is currently being impacted and the likelihood they will be impacted in the future due to school closures later in the season.
Also, employers will need to evaluate their budgets and the importance and value in offering certain benefits. Many employers are responding to the challenge by expanding caregiver benefits. For example, PwC is expanding their caregiving benefits to include protected time, reduced schedules, and a six-month sabbatical program. To provide assistance during the summer, Fidelity offered a virtual summer camp to the children of their employees. These benefits are costly, so many companies, especially those hit hardest by COVID-19, may not be able to offer them. One option to capture budget would be to evaluate office expenses that are no longer being incurred and trying to reallocate them to caregiving.
While caregiving benefits are important, employers should also keep in mind that the stress of living through a pandemic, coping with economic uncertainty, working remotely, and educating children can be overwhelming for many individuals. This why providing mental health resources are just as important as helping these parents with childcare options. The best place to start is to increase awareness of existing benefits.