Children Return to School in the Age of COVID-19
August is already here and that means that a school year will be starting before we know it! It seems that there has been no universal “return to school” plan. in the United States, let alone in Illinois or the Chicagoland Metropolitan Area. It appears that the return to school — whether or not it will be in person, virtual, or a combination of both — is being left up to the individual school districts.
Return to School Issues for Parents
This complicates issues for parents who are no longer married. Many are wondering how they will navigate this shift to potentially e-learning, a return to in-person schooling, or a hybrid, especially if they and their ex don’t see eye to eye. So, how are parents who are tasked with making these decisions in light of the “new normal” able to do so even when they don’t even get along? What do they do?
Consult Your Allocation Judgment (If You Have One!)
The first thing I always do when asked about this particular issue is I take a look at their parenting agreement or Allocation Judgment to see what the language says in regards to educational decision making. Is this a joint decision where the parties have to mediate if they don’t agree? What does their agreement say about mediation? I also weigh whether or not the return to school issue that is potentially dangerous to the minor child if it is not resolved quickly. Are there underlying health conditions that would make it dangerous for a minor child to return to school in person during the COVID-19 pandemic? What about family members?
The Allocation Judgment often times will point the client in the direction they need to go. If a parent has sole decision making regarding education-related issues and the language is extremely tight, it might be argued that this person can just decide if they want in-person learning or virtual learning (e-learning), or a hybrid, without having to consult their ex. If mediation is required and there is language indicating that mediation steps have to be adhered to before someone files a motion on educational issues, it is time to start moving on this and following the steps! Last, if the issue is urgent due to a medical issue, a school start date, or there is an imminent danger, it may warrant an emergency motion.
What If There is No Allocation Judgment Yet?
If this is the case, looking at the temporary orders for guidance may help. Was anyone allocated temporary decision making? Is there a Guardian Ad Litem or a Child Representative appointed to help with impasses such as this issue, and if not, should one be appointed? Have the parties attended mediation? These are all things that need to be considered before taking the next step, as they can change how things will proceed before a Judge. Judges often look to a GAL or a Child Representative to help them with more difficult decisions.
What about Changing School Districts and Other Miscellaneous Issues?
Let’s say one parent lives in a school district that is doing exclusively e-learning and the other parent lives in a school district where schooling is only in-person learning. Parties ought to exercise caution in entering an order giving the parent who has the more preferential school schedule additional time for residency purposes, because it may not be so easy to just “switch it back” later if this goes on for a long period of time. It can be argued that a precedent has been set for a permanent change to school and parenting time. I would caution against this unless absolutely necessary.
Another interesting issue is the cost of parents creating e-learning “pods” and hiring an educator or babysitter to run e-learning from home. Parents may or may not agree to foot the bill for this and there isn’t a whole lot of precedent since this is such a new issue. It will be interesting to see how Courts respond to these requests and if they can be contributed to as an “add-on” expense for the minor children.
This is a new world we are living in and school decisions are difficult and stressful for all parents involved, even if they still remain in a relationship or married. The separation or divorce of the parents just adds another layer of stress.
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