For many parents, September marked a bittersweet time of year.  Summer is over, family vacations  came to an end, and focus turned to starting a new school year.  In a typical year, there is often a mix of excitement to start a new year and apprehension about what it may hold, as well as the ever-constant reminder that our children are growing up so quickly.  This year, the return to school has been fraught with much more anxiety – how will school look in the midst of a global pandemic?  Will our children be able to go in person?  Will they be fully remote, or some combination?  How will we all (parents and children) adapt to this “new normal”?

While summer may have provided a welcome respite to the stress, fear, and uncertainty that marked the end of last school year, we are now faced with so many difficult choices.  Should we send our children to school either full or part time if that is an option?  Or should we keep them home, and opt to take part in a remote learning option?  Will our children suffer academically if they do not receive in-person instruction?  Will they suffer an impact on their mental health without the socialization that school provides?  Or is the risk to their physical health (and that of other family members) too great to chance a return to an in-person education?  What about the financial ramifications of finding child care and/or tutoring for children who would normally need neither?

These questions have been asked over and over again in recent months by parents across the country.  In my own experience, my husband and I have discussed the options almost daily.  We both recall all too well the difficulties we faced from March through June, both juggling full-time employment with “home-schooling” our then first-grade son and pre-kindergarten daughter.  Like many families, we made do with squeezing work into early mornings, late evenings, and weekends, while trying to keep up with school assignments and make sure our children were doing ok, educationally and emotionally.  Multi-tasking became a way of life; my daughter sat on my lap through more Zoom and Skype meetings than I can count, and the dining room table quickly became a shared workspace. Ultimately, after a lot of discussion, my husband and I agreed that we could not continue that arrangement through another school year, and opted to send our children to attend school in-person starting in September.

There’s no easy answer, and even in intact families, it’s easy for two parents to disagree on the best decision for their children.  In families with parents who are separated and/or divorced, the decision can become even more complicated.  What happens if one parent wants to send children back to school, but the other one is opposed to that option? Even if parents might agree on either a remote or hybrid option (as very few school districts have a plan for full-time in-person instruction), how does this impact custody and visitation?  Who is responsible for remote education?  Who is responsible for the cost of additional child care or a tutor?  All of these issues might result in legal intervention, and it is important that parents take the necessary and appropriate steps now to either resolve any disagreements, or to be best prepared for litigation.

What happens when separated parents don’t agree?

When each parent has a different opinion on the best option for their child’s education, the first step is to determine whether either parent has final decision making authority.  If so, then after thorough consultation, that parent would be entitled to make the decision about school.  However, the other parent could still challenge that decision by filing a court application.  If parents have joint custody, with neither parent having the right to make a final decision in the event of a disagreement, the path forward is even more difficult and even more likely to end up in court if a resolution cannot be reached.

The best path forward is to start the discussion with your child’s other parent as soon as possible, and make sure you communicate openly about all information that you’ve received from your child’s school, as well as your position on how best to proceed.  Clear communication of your preference, and the reasons supporting that preference, is essential.  First, it may convince the other party of your position.  But if not, you will have demonstrated to the court that you made a sincere effort to resolve the matter and that your position is reasonable.

If an agreement cannot be reached, it may be beneficial for both parents to consult with a neutral third party whose opinion could be relevant.  For example, your child’s guidance counselor may be able to give an opinion as to how he or she thinks your child might perform in a virtual setting.  If your child or someone in your immediate family is immuno-compromised, a treating physician may have important advice as to what level of exposure is appropriate.  Or, if your child sees a therapist, he or she may offer insight into the mental health impact of the pandemic, including how the school environment comes into play. According to psychotherapist Justine Carino, LMHC many children in divorced family systems benefit from having a therapist to speak with. A person outside of the of the family who has a neutral perspective can help a child navigate their feelings about divorce. With the added stressors of the pandemic, a safe adult who can lend a listening ear and help a child express their concerns to parents who may be divided on what education should look like can relieve some of the child’s stress. If you notice any changes in your child’s behavior, such as sleeping too much or too little, appetite changes, resistance to do things they used to want to do, not getting any work done, consistently refusing to attend school online or in person, or even shutting down conversations and refusing to talk to you about what is going on, it may be time to involve a therapist to see how they are adapting to their new learning experience. Consulting one or more of these types of third party “experts” will provide you with important and helpful advice, and will also assist in making your argument to the court if and when the time comes.

What about the impact of all of these decisions and changes on a child’s mental health?  If a child is suffering emotionally, he or she may not perform well in school, no matter what steps the parents have taken to ensure the best academic environment.  It is essential to monitor a child’s mental health, as part of any decision as to what is in his or her best interests. Ms. Carino, shares that many children have been negatively impacted by the changes of the pandemic. Many have felt socially isolated, many have mourned the loss of their school environment and activities, and many have felt fear and anxiety about getting the virus and passing it along to family members. Having open conversations with children about their feelings related to the changes of the pandemic is important. Just because they aren’t coming to you and saying how they are feeling doesn’t mean that they don’t have feelings about it all. Car rides are an amazing way to get a conversation going about their emotions. The lack of direct eye contact helps a child feel less intimidated to open up. Tucking your child into bed at night is also a great time to get conversations going. At bedtime, we all unpack our thoughts from the day and worries about the next day, so let your child bounce their thoughts off you as it can help them sleep better.  Many of their feelings and worries may be normal, but if you notice that it is impacting their overall functioning, then it is time to involve a mental health professional.

If open discussion and consultation with experts and with your child does not assist you and your child’s other parent in resolving a dispute over educational options, you will have at a minimum established that you are willing to engage in a thorough consultation and to consider all viewpoints.  Establishing yourself as reasonable and open to discussion will only serve to benefit you in the long term, and this may be the factor that a court relies upon when ultimately deciding your case.

How to handle home-schooling when parents are separated?

Another issue that is likely to arise is the impact of homes-schooling on custody and visitation.  In some cases, both parents may have flexibility in their schedules that allows them to work remotely.  In that event, the parent who has less time with the children may be more available, and may want greater time than what a custody order provides to him or her.  It may be beneficial for both parents and the children to make adjustments to the “normal” schedule to accommodate children’s remote learning schedules.  If this is something you are considering, you should consult with an attorney first.  A formal agreement is essential to make it clear that this agreement is temporary, and to provide the necessary terms that are agreed upon by both parents.  Absent a clear agreement, you may be headed for court later, when each parent has different ideas about how long the new arrangement was supposed to last or whether it was meant to be permanent.

What about if both parents are working and child care, tutoring, or some combination of the two is needed to ensure that their children are able to complete their remote assignments?  If the parents did not have an agreement as to the division of this expense, there may be some disagreement as to how it should be handled.  Ultimately, child care is an add-on expense that should be apportioned between the parents in most cases.  Again, as with the issue of decision making, it is important to communicate openly about the expenses and the needs of the children.