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How Can HR Navigate the Back to School Season?

Last Updated on November 15, 2021 / COVID-19, HR Strategy

HR Question:

As schools begin their new year, the format of school is changing nearly daily – which is hard enough for kids and parents without the added stress of returning in a COVID-19 environment. As HR and business leaders, how can we best navigate the back to school season? What are other organizations doing to try and accommodate employees’ needs to be home with their kids?

HR Answer:

It’s no secret that schools are facing a unique and intimidating challenge as they try to return to a sense of “normal”. Parents and schools are turning to CDC guidance as they develop plans to educate and engage students in a time of extraordinary safety concerns and varying accessibility. In turn, employers are impacted as employees must accommodate their schools’ plans for their children.

As business leaders and HR professionals, we must realize that this is an extremely fluid situation, and there, categorically, is no one-size-fits-all! Every employee will have different needs as there is no singular standard school plan that districts are following. And, even if a plan is in place, we are already seeing it change rapidly based on outbreaks, exposures, needs to quarantine, and many other variables.

So how is HR supposed to navigate all of the plans, requests, and changing needs of this unique back to school season? If an employee approaches you about their need to be at home with their child, start first by asking the employee the following:

Provide the School’s Plan: When an employee makes you aware that their child’s school’s plan may interfere with their ability to work their normal schedule, request the employee to provide a copy of their most recent school plan.

Ask the Employee to Provide Potential Solution(s): We recommend asking the employee to submit ideas of how they can accomplish their job based on needs presented by the school schedule. This would be somewhat like the ADA accommodation interactive process, but without the legal obligation to consider. Encourage the employee to engage with peers in their workgroup to ensure adequate coverage. This can actually help team cohesiveness and empathy if there is a willingness to help out a colleague.

Next, the company and employee should consider and discuss:

  • What are specifics of how the school needs overlap with the work schedule?
  • Can the employee perform their job from a remote location?
  • What is the age of the child to determine how much actual oversight will be needed? If the employee is working from home, is it even feasible that they can actually work, or will they need to be actively involved in the child’s learning or have too many distractions? (This may vary from child to child, depending on learning needs.)
  • Does the position have flexibility regarding when the work needs to be done, or can it be done during off-hours?
  • What resources does the employee have to be able to work from home and what will the employer need to provide? (i.e., computer, internet connection, phone access, equipment, etc.) What are the costs associated with this? (Note: check your state laws if the employer is required to reimburse this to the employee.)
  • How will any changes impact the ability of other employees/departments to function effectively? If significant assistance is needed from others, or significant ongoing preparation is needed for the employee to be able to work from home, it may not be feasible.
  • If working from home is not feasible, can the employee work an adapted schedule or a different shift and still meet the company’s needs? (i.e., coming in early or starting late, working evenings, weekends, or alternate shifts)
  • How will communication be established between the employee, manager, and the team?

This is just a start of things to consider, and HR may find themselves having to get a little creative (i.e., flexible hours, working remote, onsite daycare, assisting with the cost of a caregiver, intermittent leave, job sharing). Every aspect should be looked at from both the employee’s and the business’ perspective.

While a company has no obligation to accommodate such a request, refusing to accommodate presents its own share of challenges. Employees may quit to stay home and take care of their children, or request leave (don’t forget the potential benefit of EPSLA and EFMLEA). This may leave the company short of the staff and the skills needed to be productive. Employers should also consider the perception of employees, customers, and the public if they refuse to work with employees.

What works for one employee may not work for another, even if they are in the same role. If you choose to try to work with the employee, communication is critical. The plan may need to change as you work out the logistics or as school plans change.

These are extraordinary times that are presenting extraordinary challenges. Even if you can’t fully meet each employee’s needs, showing a willingness to try and work with the employee can go a long way toward how the company is viewed. If you aren’t able to make it work, make sure the employee understands the reasoning why. This isn’t the first time HR has had to prepare for the back to school season, but most assuredly – it will be the most unique.

Thanks to Cathleen Snyder, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, for writing this HR Question of the Week!

Whatever HR challenge your business may be facing, Strategic HR can help! Whether it’s by developing a Back-To-School plan, developing a comprehensive strategic business plan through our HR Strategy services, or helping you navigate COVID-19 HR strategy issues, our team of experienced consultants is waiting to partner with you.