COVID-19 And A Return To School: How Co-Parents Can Navigate A Difficult Situation 

David Bjorkgren
By

By Liz Billies

You can’t turn on the TV today without being confronted with the debate about children returning to in-person school this Fall. There are so many competing interests in determining what is best for our children when it comes to COVID-19 and school. Here are answers to three important questions.

What is the first thing you should do about COVID-19 and school in the fall?

The first thing that you should do about COVID-19 and school is talk about it with your co-parent! Chances are you and your co-parent have shared or joint legal custody. This means that both of you have equal right to make decisions regarding the health, safety and welfare of your children. What does that mean in plain English? You need to start talking.

It is best to know if you and your co-parent are generally on the same page about COVID-19 and school as soon as possible. Do you both agree that no matter what the district says your children will stay home? Do you both agree that you will follow the school district’s decision no matter what? What if you don’t agree? Are either of you willing to ask the court to intervene?

Knowing the other parent’s preliminary thoughts on this topic will help you know if you should be preparing for a fight.

What should you do if your school district gives you the option of virtual school for this Fall?

Several school districts are giving parents the option for virtual classes or in-person instruction for the fall semester. What should you do if your district offers an option? Just as with the spring school closures, there are a lot of things to consider when it comes to virtual school versus in person instruction for your children, such as:

  • Do you have a strong internet connection and a computer they can use;
  • Is there an adult that can work from home or forgo work to supervise this instruction;
  • If both parents work outside of the home, do you have the financial means to hire a caregiver to provide supervision;
  • Does your child have learning disabilities that make virtual instruction easier or difficult for them?
  • Is your child immune compromised such that in person instruction could expose them to a grave health risk; and/or
  • Is someone else in your household or your co-parent’s household immune compromised such that your child going to school would pose a grave health risk to that household member?

What should I do next if my co-parent and I still disagree about COVID-19 and school?

First, if you have not done so already, I would consult with an attorney in your area as to what he or she thinks that you should do and the likelihood of success. COVID-19 and school reopening is a novel issue for courts. However, it is possible that your lawyer will have received some guidance either from the court or from other family law lawyers as to how the judges in your area are dealing with this issue.

The next step would be to file a petition in family court to have a judge make this decision for you. I would suggest filing that document as soon as possible as school is just weeks away. In evaluating your filing, the judge will likely consider the answers to the questions I posed above in addition to the following:

  • How did your child fare with virtual learning at the end of last year?
  • If your child had to go to a different school district for in-person instruction how would he or she get here?
  • If you are proposing a change to a school district, would it be temporary or permanent?
  • Would changing schools require a change to the physical custody schedule?
  • Would virtual learning require a change to the physical custody schedule?

In general, judges prefer maintaining the status quo. Meaning, they are not likely to rock the boat and change your child’s school district or type of schooling without good reason. They also are likely going to defer to the decisions of the district. Remember, judges are trained as lawyers, not educators.

Liz Billies

Click here for more tips on returning to school from Liz Billies,  a Dischell Bartle Dooley partner. Liz practices family law, including custody and support matters, divorces, equitable distribution and pre- and post-nuptial agreements.

Dischell Bartle Dooley is a full-service law firm with offices in Lansdale and Pottstown.

Click here to learn more about its commitment to results or call 215-362-2474 to talk with an attorney.

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