How reopening schools might impact employers

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For many parents right now, schools reopening is a very hot topic. But it is a topic that employers should be thinking through as well. Parents are also employees, and the effects of schools reopening (or not) will likely impact their ability to work.

International evidence suggests that reducing the amount of COVID-19 virus in the community prior to schools reopening is the most important determinant of success. The more virus that is circulating, the greater the chances that it will enter the school. Those countries that waited to open schools until after their community case numbers were low, didn’t see large outbreaks once schools opened. Conversely, those that opened while the virus was still widely circulating or reduced control measures too early experienced outbreaks after opening schools.

Unfortunately, many places in the U.S. have not successfully lowered community levels of viral transmission, to the degree that other countries did prior to reopening. A recent analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that the number of cases per million, daily case rate and test positivity rates in the U.S. are much higher than in countries that successfully reopened schools. While there is a large amount of regional variation in the U.S., those cities and counties with high amounts of ongoing viral transmission will likely experience school-related outbreaks if they reopen their schools. For example, some schools in Georgia that reopened before community virus levels were under control saw cases as early as one day after opening.

Impacts on both employees and employers

In many parts of the country, parents will face a dilemma. If they send their child back to school, and their child is exposed to COVID at school, they will need to quarantine. In many cases, depending on the child’s age, that will mean the parent may have to stay home with them, forat least a 14-day quarantine period (and potentially longer if someone in the household ends up developing symptoms). Israel, which reduced distancing, masks and other control measures shortly after schools reopened, ended up quarantining over 22,000 teachers and students within a matter of weeks.

If a similar scenario were to occur in a U.S. city, many businesses in that area could be impacted, with large numbers of employees needing to stay home with their quarantined children. This could have a major impact on both leave and continuity of operations, if a substantial number of employees are unable to work simultaneously. On the other hand, if parents opt not to send their children to school, they may have difficulties working due to a lack of childcare, which may impact productivity and timing of work hours. Employers should think through such issues in advance, as they plan for staffing and leave pay in the fall and winter. They might also consider what types of assistance they can offer employees, to help alleviate some of these issues (e.g. flexible schedules, quarantine pay, childcare or tutoring-related monetary assistance, connections to emergency babysitting services, etc.). For planning purposes, some employers are already taking surveys or anonymous polls of employees to get a sense for the percentage that may be affected.

In addition, some employers are examining the demographics of their employee populations by occupation type, as there may be groups within a company that are disproportionately affected by the school situation. Essential workers, for example, who cannot work remotely due to the nature of their jobs may have no choice but to send their children to school - which increases their likelihood of COVID exposure and need to quarantine. Further, workers in lower socioeconomic strata may lack the internet access necessary for remote learning - thus they may be more likely to send their children to school in person and have a higher likelihood of COVID exposure/quarantine. According to the Pew Research Center, racial/ethnic minorities, people with lower levels of education and income, older adults, as well as those who live in rural areas, are less likely to have broadband service at home. Therefore, workers who fall into these categories may be disproportionately affected in their needs for leave or other forms of assistance. Employers should take these issues into consideration when planning for absenteeism, leave pay, benefit needs and staffing essential business operations as we enter the school year. In addition, consider ways to assist these employees (e.g. providing hotspots or paying for devices and services to improve internet access) to help proactively overcome potential disparities.

Guidance for employees

Many of your employees will be seeking guidance, as they struggle with the decision to send their child back to school. Each employee will need to think through the following types of questions and decide what is best for his or her family:
1. Is my child at high risk for severe COVID-related illness?
2. Does my child live with someone who is at high risk for severe COVID-related illness? (an older adult, someone with diabetes, obesity, etc.)
3. Is the community heavily affected by COVID? Are daily case rates in my community high? Is my community testing enough to draw meaningful conclusions (tests per capita)? Is positivity in my community high? What about hospitalizations for COVID?
4. Is the school offering protective measures such as mask mandates, distancing, outdoor classrooms, reduced classroom sizes, etc.?
5. Is it logistically feasible for my children to do online schooling at home while I work? (Do they require adult supervision while doing online school? Do they have internet access?)

Many employees will have a difficult time thinking through these questions themselves, and may require clinical guidance in reaching a decision. Employers should consider making virtual clinical services available, particularly those that offer this type of decision-making support, to proactively aid employees. In addition, making Employee Assistance Programs, stress management and other behavioral health support programs more readily accessible to employees can potentially improve employee morale, mental health and productivity during this difficult time.

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Workplace safety and security Coronavirus Workplace Options Workplace management