Supporting Working Parents When School Starts During a Pandemic

As the school year starts amid a pandemic, many working parents, once again, face the daunting challenge of juggling work and remote school.


August 17, 2020

As the school year starts amid a pandemic, many working parents, once again, face the daunting challenge of juggling work and remote school. Even parents (and businesses) in localities with in-person instruction should plan and prepare for intermittent disruptions from school and childcare closures. At the same time, many businesses continue to experience financial hardship and uncertainty themselves, limiting their ability to make significant investments in new benefits.

While adapting benefits and policies to respond to immediate challenges, leaders must consider the long-term impacts on productivity and workforce planning relevant to attrition.

Employers should also ask themselves:

  • What are the unique needs of our workforce?
  • What solutions are affordable?
  • Will the benefits extended be temporarily for a defined time period or continue beyond the pandemic?
  • How can we ensure that families who otherwise would not have viable solutions are supported?
  • How can we ensure benefits and implementation are equitable and fair across the workforce (e.g., field employees/teleworking employees, hourly/salaried employees, parents/non-parents)?
  • How will abuse of flexibilities be mitigated and addressed?

In a recent survey, 73% of parents indicated they may have to make major changes at work if school and day cares do not fully open, with 21% responding they’d look for a different job and 15% indicating they may leave the workforce entirely. 

Large employers have compassionately acted to address the challenges COVID-19 has placed on employees and their families. Supporting working parents through the 2020-2021 school year is yet another unprecedented situation that will require creativity and flexibility. The right approach for each company will look different, based on its unique business and workforce needs.

Here are potential strategies and supports for employer consideration:

Administration and Communication

  • Create a task force to develop the best approach to support working parents when the school year starts.
  • Solicit feedback and ideas from parents and employee resource groups (ERGs) to avoid spending time and resources on the wrong approach.
  • Coordinate with vendors to expand offerings and/or increase awareness of available services.
  • Bundle and communicate benefits for parents to increase awareness.
  • Focus on implementing sustainable solutions and/or communicate, as appropriate, that new benefits are being offered temporarily to address a short-term—but critical—problem.
  • Specify a defined time period when offering temporary benefits, keeping in mind the uncertainly of the pandemic’s duration. It is important for employers to assess viability periodically and reserve the right to adjust as necessary.
  • Help employees navigate community resources.
  • Ensure legal compliance (e.g., liability, safety, tax considerations).

In coordination with employee assistance programs (EAPs) and other vendors, employers have greatly expanded resources available to help parents address timely topics,  such as how to set up a learn-from-home space, how to assess if children are ready to stay home by themselves and how to assess home safety.

Education and Childcare Support

  • Provide a concierge/navigation benefit to help parents find an in-home or virtual teacher, tutor or caregiver.
  • Offer virtual before- or after-school activities, kid-oriented webinars or daily challenges, such as scavenger hunts.
  • Add or reopen on-site childcare centers, if permissible under state guidance.
  • Create on-site learning hubs for children to access their virtual classroom with a teacher/supervisor, Wi-Fi and physically distanced computers.
  • Implement or expand backup care benefits; some programs allow employees to pay friends and family members they trust through a backup care program.
  • Offer virtual internships for high school and college students.

Consider tiering subsidies for tutoring and childcare based on income to ensure that lower-income families have the support they need and may not be able to afford otherwise.

  • Make grants available through an employee relief fund to provide financial assistance for families who otherwise cannot afford childcare or tutoring services.
  • Share a list of age-appropriate and kid-friendly activities and resources with employees and managers (even better, share new ideas on a regular weekly basis).
  • Hire temporary employees (potentially retired teachers) to provide tutoring services.
  • Offer a stipend or discount for tutoring services or consider a bulk purchase of tutoring hours for the workforce.
  • Offer a stipend or discount for a virtual learning setup (e.g., high-speed Internet, laptop, school supplies).

Other Family-Focused Benefits and Practices

  • Expand additional supports and benefits for families with children with special needs, who will likely experience greater difficulty with access and affordability to critical care and treatment.
  • Offer mental health support geared toward families.
  • Establish a virtual working parents support groups/ERGs.
  • Schedule essential meetings in the early afternoon; parents are likely to have school-related responsibilities in the morning.
  • Enact core hours and/or no meeting days.

Leave and Flexible Work Arrangements

  • Provide a paid caregiver leave to employees who need time off to support children or family members due to disruptions in care, including parents impacted by virtual school and/or childcare closures, for a defined time period, if not already covered by other available (including pandemic-related) leaves.
  • Allow employees to work flexible schedules and transition to reduced/part-time schedules if feasible.
  • Allow employees to work unconventional shifts (e.g., 3 12-hour shifts Fri-Sun or Sat-Mon).
  • Allow employees to swap shifts so that parents can be at home during the day and then work nights on the third shift.
  • Allow parents to work reduced hours.
  • Provide opportunities for job sharing.
  • Allow employees to take a sabbatical to support local childcare and/or schools.
  • Work with supervisors to inform them about flexible work options and how to effectively manage employees during the pandemic.

One Business Group member implemented a summer leave program where employees applied to take 2 or 3 months of leave. If approved for a 2-month leave, the company gave them 2 weeks of leave and then the employee used 6 weeks of their own PTO. If approved for a 3-month leave, the company gave employees 3 weeks of leave and they used 9 weeks of their own PTO. This solution helped employees meet responsibilities outside of work while decreasing leave balances. It could be replicated in the fall to support employees juggling working, parenting and teaching.

Learn More

Ideas for Supporting the Broader Community

  • Start or participate in a coalition of business and community leaders to explore childcare challenges and solutions.
  • Help local childcare centers develop return-to-work plans.
  • Help local childcare centers remain open by guaranteeing a number of customers (your employees) and/or offering grants to childcare providers through a corporate giving program or foundation.
  • Provide in-kind contributions to support the business side of local childcare centers (e.g., assistance with purchasing, payroll and billing, IT support).
  • Donate to organizations that support distance learning (e.g., Khan Academy).

More Topics

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More in Well-being and Workforce Strategy


  1. Administration and Communication
  2. Education and Childcare Support
  3. Other Family-Focused Benefits and Practices
  4. Leave and Flexible Work Arrangements