Ontario has laid out its education plan for the upcoming school year, confirming that schools will reopen in September for both elementary and high-school students.
But many parents are still unsure if it's safe to send their children back to class in the middle of a pandemic.
On the one hand, some say that a return to classroom learning will provide the structure and socialization children need to thrive. But there's also a genuine concern around the increased risk of COVID-19 transmission in highly populated environments, such as schools.
About one-quarter of families say they won't send their kids back to the classroom this fall but will continue with online learning, according to results of a survey by Ontario school boards.
Figuring out the best option for school-age children is even more complicated for divorced parents. They have had to switch up parenting schedules and take on the role of educator in recent months as everyone adjusted to the new normal.
You are not alone
If you and your former spouse are at odds over the issue, you're not alone. Many parents are confused and struggling to determine what's in their child's best interests. A quick review of the hashtags #unsafeseptember and #SafeSeptemberON on Twitter highlights a wave of anxiety.
Teachers are scared. Students are scared. Families are scared, reads a recent tweet from a concerned educator.
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One parent who had decided against sending her son back to school tweets:
I just found out my son's Grade 4 class has 27 kids in it. Their school was built in 1965. The windows don't open and there's no A/C. So that's a big no for me. I'll wait and see how things look in January.
In another tweet, Dr. Michael Warner cautions that marginalized communities will be most at risk when classes resume next month.
The decision to send your children back to a physical classroom or not is a very personal one for parents. There are no easy answers to this difficult question; it boils down to what parents agree on after considering all the factors.
Education is one of the decision-making powers under what's traditionally labelled custody, which also includes health, extracurriculars and religion. In joint custody arrangements, both parents are responsible for education decisions. If one parent has full custody, the responsibility falls to them. In some situations, parents have a split-custody arrangement where one makes decisions around heath and extracurriculars, for example, the other on education and religion.
Reaching an agreement is challenging for co-parents as they navigate work schedules provide childcare for kids who will be online learning, and the potential risk to their families. For those in high-conflict situations, it will be virtually impossible.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. has issued guidelines for parents and a decision-making tool to help them assess the risks and benefits of various options. This might be a useful resource for parents struggling to determine the best path for their children.
To date, Ontario courts haven't weighed in on this issue, but I'm sure that will change in the coming weeks as parents find themselves on opposite sides of the debate. Once case law develops, family law lawyers will have a clearer basis to provide guidance for their clients regarding which types of disputes are appropriate for a judge to decide.
It's important to note that in court, decisions will always be driven by what's in the best interests of the particular child or children in question. That means we will likely see different rulings, depending on a family's unique circumstances. For example, if one family member is immunocompromised, the courts may rule that online learning is the best option for children in that situation.
If we can take any cues from recent cases litigated in Quebec courts, judges will more than likely follow provincial guidelines. In three cases where separated parents couldn't agree, a judge has ordered the children to return to school, reports the Montreal Gazette.
For now, my best advice to parents who can't agree is to try to come to a resolution using some form of alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation or arbitration. Mediation has worked well for many of my clients during the pandemic, as it allows both parties to have more control over the final solution.
Changes to parenting schedules
Co-parents who choose to continue with online education for their children may need updates to their parenting plans or child support orders to reflect the new reality. For instance, if parent A can work from home but parent B can't, they might decide it makes sense for the children to live with parent A during the week and spend weekends with parent B. If the arrangement pre-COVID was that parenting time was split equally, adjustments may need to be made to child support and parenting plans.
We have no idea how long this pandemic will continue, but it's prudent to ensure that any changes in parenting arrangements are documented in your legal agreements.