What If We Can’t Agree On Whether Our Child Should Attend School In-Person or Virtually?
Within the next few weeks, parents have a big decision to make. With COVID-19 cases spiking around the county, many are uncertain how to proceed with the upcoming school year. With only a few weeks until classes begin, even many school districts have not announced their plans. For the districts that have, it appears many are offering parents the decision to allow their child to attend school in-person or virtually, or even a combination of the two. There are obvious pros and cons to each option, and the decision may be hard to reach. This is especially true for divorced parents, who may have a more difficult time reaching an agreement. Some decision-making orders let one parents have the sole authority, or the ultimate authority after conferring with the other parent. Others require both parents to come to an agreement. And if parents can’t agree, the court may not be an available remedy to resolve the issues, especially when time is running out quickly before the decision must be made.
The court allocates decision-making responsibilities between parents, based upon the best interests of the child and other factors in the statute. The court will also consider the ability of the parties to cooperate and make decisions jointly. In general, there are three different types of decision-making orders.
Sole: One parents has sole decision-making authority. This parents does not need to consult with any other parent before deciding.
Conferral: All parties must attempt to reach an agreement and cooperate with each other. If no agreement is met, the default decision-making parent (designated by court) may make the final decision. However, good-faith consulting with the other parent is required.
Joint: All parties must reach an agreement. Neither parent may override the other, less they violate the Court’s Order.
If two parents who share joint decision-making responsibility cannot agree on how to handle the child’s school situation this fall, there is little time for the court to step in. Moreover, if the parties have sole decision-making, there is case law which specifies that the Court does not have the authority to make the decision for the parents. However, the Court can allocate the decision to one parent or the other, thus essentially making the decision by siding with one parents decision.
With less than a few weeks until school starts, and many parents facing the same conflict, looking to the Court for an answer may not be an option. These parents have limited options on how to proceed before school starts. They must either cooperate and compromise until a solution is agreed upon, appoint a parenting coordinator/decision-maker (PC/DM), or must rely on arbitration. These methods bring in an outside party to settle a dispute. Even for these options, time is running out and they can become expensive rather quickly!
Having a Back-Up Plan
Some parents will decide to send their children to school for in-person learning. The reasons for this decision can vary, but for many families a large factor is the lack of alternative child care while either/both parents work. Mental health stability, socialization and a solid education also support sending children to learn in-person. However, with the uncertainty around the virus in this ever-changing environment, all families must be prepared to have back-up virtual learning plan. Schools can (and most likely will!) shut down at any time. It might be for 14 days if students are forced to quarantine after exposure, or it might be for the rest of the semester depending on the circumstances, as we saw the previous spring. Either way, if you are sending your child to school in-person, be sure to have an agreed-upon back up plan if things move online.
Sharing child custody and decision-making responsibility can be hard. If you are in need of legal help, consider reaching out to Nicol Gersch Petterson for a free 30-minute consultation. Find more information at https://CoLawTeam.com or call 970.670.0378.
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