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For the next few weeks, many families in South Australia will face the daunting prospect of having their children return to school or continue learning from home, whilst maintaining their ongoing employment commitments, even if it is remotely.

The State Government recently announced that schools would reopen from 31 January 2022 but only for vulnerable students and the children of essential workers. Essential workers are categorised as those workers deemed to be essential in the provision of key services under the Declarations and Directions made pursuant to the Emergency Management Act 2004 (SA).

Formal classes will resume from tomorrow (2 February 2022) for selected year levels including reception, years 1, 7, 8 and 12, with other year levels to learn from home until Friday 11 February 2022.

For those families who do not fall within the above categories, we will see the roll out of a hybrid return to school model, which will see the staggered return to school for many school children. This is not ideal, and will invariably cause many households additional stress and anxiety as they struggle to navigate home schooling until Friday 11 February 2022.

Employer responsibilities – the consultation process

In this environment, employers need to give due consideration to how they will manage and assist working parents during this complex time.

Making accommodations for employees who are now faced with undertaking home learning over the next ten days for their school age children, should ensure that ongoing workplace productivity continues and should also be seen as a way to better engage in real dialogue with employees.

Employers should communicate their expectations and make adjustments as necessary.

Working from home policies

Employers should have in place clear and concise work from home policies that outline hours of work and the responsibilities of parties.

Such policies need to be clearly communicated to employees and take into account any adjustments necessary over the next 10 days or so. Examples include variation of hours worked taking into account home learning requirements of students.

Flexible working arrangements

During the next 14 day period when working parents juggle work hours around home schooling commitments, employers should consider adopting strategies in consultation with their employees, which seek to accommodate such demands.

Discussing and agreeing upon a degree of flexibility with employees regarding the scheduling of work duties, such as meetings and other work tasks outside of the traditional working day, assist in accomplishing minimal interruption to the workplace over the relevant time period.

Flexibility will be the key driver in this situation and employers who accommodate and adapt quickly will be well served by doing so.

If it is not possible to accommodate the needs of employees during this time, employers should look at other options including the use of relevant leave entitlements or in some circumstances giving consideration to entering into ongoing flexible working arrangements for working parents, if care responsibilities are considered to be necessary for extended periods of time.

Obviously one size does not fit all, so employers should have a full understanding of the options available to them and are strongly encouraged to seek legal advice in this regard.

Communicate effectively

Employers should continue to engage in discussions with working parents around any changes that may be necessary, as they have done during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

As the pandemic continues, there is a genuine need for flexible and well thought out work from home policies and arrangements for working parents, which can quickly respond to necessary changes as required.

It is also crucially important for employers to continue to make contact with employees and ensure that a consultative and supportive environment is fostered. Human Resources departments should maintain regular engagement with employees for any extended periods where working from home is necessary. Regular and clear communication with employees will go a long way and minimise additional anxiety for employees and promote a positive outcome for both parties.

What are my legal obligations as an employer?

Employers should ensure that they understand their legal obligations in the present circumstances. If you are unclear on your responsibilities as an employer during this time, our Employment and Work Place Relations team are here to provide assistance.