Schools move to remote learning until mid-February – but childcare can remain open

On 5 January 2021, Education Minister Peter Weir confirmed that, effective from Thursday 7 January, pre-school education settings, primary and post primary schools in Northern Ireland will be required to provide remote learning to pupils until the half term break in mid-February. The Executive will keep this position under review. Direct payments will be made to families whose children are entitled to free school meals.

Childcare settings, including those based in primary schools, are to remain open, and childminders are allowed to continue their provision.

Special schools will remain open as usual.

Vulnerable children and children of key workers will have access to schools for supervised learning. Only one parent/guardian is required to be a key worker. School provision is mandatory for children of key workers and should operate over normal school hours.

Informal childcare is also permitted to continue. Informal childcare is valuable, trusted care provided by grandparents and close family. It is not to be confused with unregistered childcare, which is provided by those who are not formally registered but who charge a fee for their services, and is not legal.

Full details, including the broad definition of ‘key worker’, are available on the Department of Education website. It is important to note that parents working in the education and childcare sector are defined as ‘key workers’.

It is important to note that this is a fluid situation and is subject to change. We will continue to keep our website and social media up to date as the situation evolves.

Impact on families

This will be a new year like no other, and while brighter times are on the horizon with further positive developments in relation to Covid-19 vaccination, there is no doubt that the initial weeks and months of 2021 will bring challenges for many families.

It is important to note that schools remain open to provide supervised learning for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, special schools are to open as usual, and childcare providers will also be operating as normal (subject to ongoing Covid-19 health and safety restrictions).

However, a return to ‘remote’ learning for some pupils will mean that many parents are struggling to balance their own work with home schooling. While many more parents are now in a position to work from home, or to avail of more flexible working arrangements, this may not be possible to sustain if they are also supporting their child’s remote education.

What are my options if I am struggling to balance work while providing care and supporting my child’s remote education?

It will be important that employers can take a flexible approach with their employees as the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to be felt. There are a number of options that may be available for employees who are required to stay at home with their children:

  • Furlough – the Government has extended the furlough scheme until 30 April 2021, and you can now be furloughed with effect from 1 November, even if you have not been furloughed under the previous scheme, if you are eligible. The Government has confirmed that you can ask your employer to put you on furlough if you are unable to work (including from home) due to caring responsibilities because of Covid-19, for example, caring for children at home because their school is closed. However, this is not an entitlement, and an employer does not have to agree to furlough you. We would, however, strongly encourage any employer who can to support their staff in this way.
  • Working from home– this may not be an option for everyone, but where possible, should be made available.
  • Dependent’s leave– depending on your employer’s policies, you may be able to take a period of dependent’s leave.
  • Annual leave– you may be able to use some of your annual leave allowance.
  • Unpaid leave– if no other options are available, unpaid leave may be available in some cases, such as Parental Leave where qualifying parents can take off up to 18 weeks per child, up until the child’s 18th birthday. For more information on Parental Leave, download our Employment Rights for Working Parents Factsheet here.

What if my child is unwell with Covid-19 or is self-isolating?

Employees who are unable to work as a result of having a child at home who is unwell with the symptoms of Covid-19 or self-isolating may be eligible to receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). The Government’s guidance states that you are eligible for SSP if you are self-isolating because you, or someone you live with, has symptoms or has tested positive for Covid-19, provided you self-isolate for at least four days.

If an employee is self-isolating because of contact with someone who has Covid-19, having been notified by the Public Health Agency through their test and trace system, they are entitled to claim SSP for every day they were self-isolating, but must have self-isolated for at least four days to be eligible.

Anyone who is self-isolating because of Covid-19 and is unable to work will be able to get an ‘isolation note’ online from NHS111 if off work for seven days or more. They do not have to go to a doctor or the hospital.

We appreciate that this guidance is complex and it is a challenging time also for employers, many of whom are already facing difficulties due to the economic impact of Covid-19. We would encourage employers to take a flexible approach, where possible, and to support their employees where they can. Adopting family friendly policies in the workplace can boost staff loyalty, increase staff retention and may improve productivity in the longer term from having a happier, more contented workforce.

We are here to help

Our Family Benefits Advice Service is here to help all parents identify what support they are entitled to. We are also here to help parents to understand their rights and entitlements in terms of requesting family friendly working arrangements – just give the team a call on 0800 028 3008 or email for free, impartial and confidential advice.