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Office Owners Who Want Workers Back Face A Massive Hurdle: Schools

For weeks, companies have been gradually and carefully reopening their offices in a world still combating a pandemic. But efforts to bring workers back are getting more complicated as public school systems across the country prepare to start the school year with varying degrees of online and in-person learning.

Even as the Trump administration is pushing state and local officials to bring children back to school buildings, viewing the issue as key to economic recovery, more and more districts are telling parents that classes are going to begin online — which means that is where the parents’ work must remain.

“The back-to-work and back-to-school efforts are certainly linked,” Global Health Crisis Coordination Center Executive Director Ken Berta said in an email. “We will need to get our children safely back to school to get all employees back to work.”

Students facing a delayed start to school and at-home learning during the coronavirus pandemic are complicating a return to the office for company employees.

Some businesses are trying to find alternatives for their employees’ school-aged children so their parents can return to their office. In other cases, parents are scrambling to find their own alternatives, including private schools and tutors.

But, like in most aspects of American life, the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the inequality inherent in a remote school environment, especially among blue-collar workers.

"Restaurant chains, they're not known for their fabulous healthcare or day care,” said Clark Wolf, one of the nation's leading restaurant consultants and founder of New York-based Clark Wolf Co. “It's an industry that employs a lot of people who can't easily afford child care. This is not a world of nannies and playschool. These are workers. So school and after-school activities often allow parents to work.”

School districts across the country have already begun to delay school openings or reinstate distance learning for portions of the year. Some of the largest school districts in North America have already led the way in these decisions, including Los Angeles Unified School District, Atlanta Public Schools, the Houston Independent School District and the New York City Department of Education, the country’s largest public school district.

“We all know the best place for students to learn is in a school setting. [But] we’re going in the wrong direction,” LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner told the Los Angeles Times this week. “And as much as we want to be back at schools and have students back at schools — can’t do it until it’s safe and appropriate.”

A Primrose School location operated for employees of an unnamed Fortune 500 company at its office campus.

Filling The Classroom Gap

One of the nation’s largest for-profit child care organizations, Primrose Schools, is seeing a boost in interest from large companies asking it to operate on-campus preschool and even elementary schools for employees' children, said Annette Heng, who oversees Primrose’s more than 400 schools across the nation. Primrose also operates private schools for the workers of some Fortune 500 companies, including Procter & Gamble.

“We are working with new corporations and other partners to open both on-site and near-site [schools]. We are actually working on a record number of projected openings this year,” said Heng, the school’s chief school excellence officer. “We actually have received a peak of interest from corporations during the pandemic.”

Primrose isn’t the only private education company with increasing demand from businesses looking to provide a solution for their employees with school-aged children.

“We're seeing an increase in demand from large companies and small companies for both on-site care and virtual care,” said The Babysitting Co. founder Rachel Charlupski, whose company provides private babysitting and tutoring services.

The Babysitting Co. typically provides babysitting and tutoring services to professional athletes’ families, children of traveling executives and families on vacation. But Charlupski said since the pandemic, its corporate business has been on the rise.

“It is less stress on their employees,” she said. “They get better work done when they don't have to worry about entertaining their children at the same time.”

The uncertainty with school system plans is part of the reason many companies are freezing their office leasing decisions, CoStar Managing Analyst David Kahn said. Kahn noted that since the pandemic, office leasing activity in the U.S. has plummeted, and although office experts had hoped for a Q3 rebound, the school situation is helping to delay decisions.

“It kind of goes hand in hand with the trends we're already seeing accelerate, looking for reduced footprints, looking at the hub-and-spoke [model],” Kahn said. “You can't just have a 9-to-5 and have people work that if their kids are home. That's becoming more and more of the conversation I'm hearing from tenant brokers.”

Bridge Commercial Real Estate CEO Jeff Shaw

While the pandemic is breeding uncertainty in office leasing, with interest in short-term leases and solutions growing, landlords haven’t seen demand yet for day care or school spaces in office buildings yet, Bridge Commercial Real Estate CEO Jeff Shaw said.

“I wouldn't be surprised if we started seeing some requests,” Shaw said.

Avison Young CEO Mark Rose said school delays and learning-from-home will have a short-term impact on the overall office market, but won’t drive leasing or build-out decisions.

“I don't believe it's a trend because I’m not sure that parents are ready to put their kids into day care on-site,” Rose said. “Right now, quite frankly, with things starting to escalate again, people are pulling back in.”

Schools: A Political Football

The push to open schools as normal has become a political flashpoint within the Trump administration. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has pushed for schools to open five days a week, even going so far as to say schools should consider Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines optional. President Donald Trump last week threatened to withhold federal funding from any school system that didn't open this fall.

Plenty of parents themselves are adding to the pressure to open schools, said Brittany Cufaude, the founder of Joyful Classrooms, an educational consulting firm that works with companies and school systems, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, in creating virtual classroom programs.

“[The pressure] is with parents begging to go back to work, especially as we see the CARES Act [benefits] coming to the end,” Cufaude said.

But thus far, many of the largest school systems in the U.S. have shrugged off those pressures to determine their own methods of opening, whether giving parents the choice to send their children to school, establishing full-time distance learning or creating some hybrid of in-class and virtual learning, while at the same time enforcing CDC guidelines on social distancing.

“The teacher unions are pushing back,” Cufaude said. “Teachers absolutely do not feel it would be safe for them to return to work.”

The pandemic also is reinforcing the trend that has been brewing even before the pandemic: Work life is no longer a 9-to-5 experience, said Jamie Hodari, the CEO of Industrious, one of the world's largest coworking operators.

“If the last four months have trained businesses for anything, it's been dealing with uncertainty,” Hodari said. “By this fall, companies are not going to be having to scramble to figure out what it means to have employees on different schedules. That to me is a little bit of the silver lining.”

Transwestern Senior Managing Director Clark Dean

But that may not be a universal feeling. After more than five months of remote work for most office workers, some company executives are noticing a slip in employee productivity, said Clark Dean, the vice chairman of the Global Health Crisis Coordination Center and an executive managing director for Transwestern. Zoom meetings and working from makeshift home offices were more of a Band-Aid solution, but not a panacea as an office replacement, he said.

“I sorely miss being in the office. Probably more than anyone you’ll meet,” Pope & Land Real Estate Managing Director Jennifer Koontz said.

Koontz, a veteran commercial real estate professional based in Atlanta, has a first-grader and a third-grader who attend their local public school. But she said the pandemic has forced her to find an alternative this fall since her school system, the DeKalb County School District, will keep teaching students exclusively remotely when the school year begins.

She has decided to join with other parents in her neighborhood and hire a tutor for the school children during work hours, with the students rotating between the houses. It’s a scenario that has to work for her for what could be the entire school year, she said.

“I have to plan ahead that they are going to be out [of school] for the rest of the year. We hope they won’t be,” Koontz said. “My job is not where I can teach and do my job. That’s not an option.”

Atlanta Public Schools’ recent decision to not only delay the start of the year by two weeks but also have their entire student population learn from home put Atlanta attorney Stephanie Friese Aron in a bind.

It's not that she can't work from home — Friese Aron has for the most part done so during the pandemic — but working outside of the office isn't the same to her, she said. She is planning on enrolling her son, Mars, into a nearby private school that intends to hold in-class instruction in the fall.

“I've always said that it's easy to work from home with the technology we have. But it's not always to lead from home,” said Friese Aron, a shareholder at law firm Chamberlain Hrdlicka. “It's very challenging to build your team and keep people motivated when you're dialing into Zoom calls all day.”

Joyful Classrooms founder Brittany Cufaude.

The Equality Problem With Remote Schooling

The pandemic has already widened the gap between white- and blue-collar workers in America — and that extends to their children's education. For many office employees, accomplishing tasks while working from home, while not ideal, is still possible. Those with high incomes also have other options.

But for blue-collar workers, many of whom are considered essential, like those working in restaurants, warehouses and delivering food and goods, educational options outside of public schools are expensive and elusive, Lynette Guastaferro said. Guastaferro is the CEO of Teaching Matters, a New York nonprofit that consults with public school systems.

“I think that providing a school system that can accommodate working parents is really the challenge right now,” Guastaferro said. “For the restaurants, for the retail, for construction, for people in those fields, I agree there's going to have to be some model for day care. And we're a country that's never really had a day care policy. And we're experiencing the effects of that.”

Joyful Classrooms’ Cufaude said she consults with many Title 1 schools — those with a high proportion of low-income families — and knows that the predictable school schedule in normal times acts as a safety net for working parents, who “are desperate to get their kids back [to school] because they don’t have a lot of protection.”

Cufaude said that many school districts will likely allow parents to continue to allow children to learn from home, even after schools reopen classes. And while affluent families could afford to keep their kids home, that is likely not an option blue-collar families will take, Cufaude said.

“That right there really paints the portrait of the social strata we have. I guarantee you it will have been kids in more poverty-stricken areas going to school,” she said.

Experts fear if schools reopen without taking proper precautions, they could be sources of viral spread and have to be shut down again, causing havoc similar to what the country experienced in late March and April.

“Politicians have gotten a hold of this framing has been about saving lives versus businesses,” Hodari said. “Those two things are not inverse. In reality, most businesses in America recognize if there is a big upsurge in cases, it'll be terrible for their business.”