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What can you do when separated parents don’t agree on a back-to-school plan?

By: Toni Peck, Esquire

As the start of the school year approaches, separated parents again face a never-before-seen issue: how should our child or children receive their schooling this year? Many parents have strong feelings regarding this issue, and this choice leaves little room for compromise.

Case volumes before our judges were not small before the pandemic, and the backlog of courts to address cases has worsened as hearings and trials were cancelled as the pandemic set in. This means you and your ex are going to have to make this decision long before you may be able to get into court to have a judge make this decision. How can you make this decision if a judge will not be able to help you in time?

Review your parenting plan or custody arrangements

If one parent is designated to make school decisions, then that is the parent who will have the ultimate say on this choice. This should not be confused with a designation to one parent as the “school-based parent” for school boundary determination. Such a designation does not give that parent the ultimate call on what form of instruction your child receives this coming school year.

Communicate

As with all co-parenting issues, the key to making this decision is communication. One recommendation for approaching this choice is opening a discussion not with the big question- should we send our child back to school or opt for distance learning, but instead discuss smaller questions to help determine that ultimate issue.

For example, discuss the health of your relative households. Does one or the other rely on a grandparent or other health-vulnerable adult for childcare? Is there a family member with an underlying condition such as cancer treatment? If there is such a person in the household, what risk mitigation is taking place now, and could the mitigation efforts be helped or hindered by one form of schooling or another?

Age considerations

You may opt to send an elementary-aged child to school for face to face instruction, where the child may be separated into one classroom group for the entire school day and where social skills development plays a role in elementary curriculum. For teenaged children, you could opt for distance learning where there is less separation of students due to classroom changes and for whom socialization can be done through online platforms. Younger children require more day-to-day supervision, which can make distance learning more hands-on for the supervising parent, and younger children are more prone to accidents if a parent is distracted trying to work from home and supervise distance learning. Teenagers, on the other hand, may need less supervision, but still need regular check-ins to ensure they are attending their virtual classes and completing school work.

Distance learning

Have a frank discussion about availability to help your child with distance learning. Some parents discovered standing in for their child’s classroom teacher was more stressful than he or she envisioned. And for essential workers or those without a work-from-home option, they may not have the capacity to supervise distance learning now that their job-site has reopened. It’s important to discuss what happens in the event of an unexpected school closure, and what both parents can do to be ready in the event you are forced to convert to distance learning from in-person instruction.

Be open to change

Finally, many schools do offer the option to change your election if you make a choice and find it is not working well. So if you see signs your child is struggling, such as grades falling, work not being turned in, or a change in the unique family circumstances in either parent’s household, you should talk with the other parent to revise the choice.

If you should need assistance with a family matter, please feel free to contact to set up a consultation at toni.peck@henlaw.com or by phone at 239-344-1302.