If asked six months ago, many parents could have recited their family’s weekday routine: children go to school, parents go to work, and family time is enjoyed at night—rinse and repeat. COVID-19 has forced parents to restructure that routine and navigate through unprecedented times structuring their family’s day. This can be especially challenging to those parents co-parenting with a not-so-cooperative parent, or for those parents in the midst of separation. The largest and most impactful variable of them all is the uncertainty surrounding the new school year, and the numerous options available to parents in many school districts. This poses many questions: who gets to decide what learning option is best for the children? If the children are distance learning, who is responsible for supervising that? What about the parent’s day job?
- Who gets to decide what learning option is best for the children? The answer to this question is: it depends. If the parties have a custody order granting them joint legal custody, then both parents must work together in deciding what option to select for their child (if options are given to them by the school district). If one parent has sole legal custody, that parent is able to make the decision independent from consultation or discussion with the other parent.
- If the children are distance learning, who is responsible for supervising that? If there is a custody order currently in place, each day falls on the responsibility of the custodial parent that day. For example, if dad and mom share physical custody with a “week on/week off” schedule, then mom is responsible for supervising the children’s distance learning during her week on, while dad has the responsibility during his week on. Alternatively, if dad has primary physical custody and mom has visitation with the children every other weekend from Friday afternoon until Sunday evening, then dad is responsible for supervising the children’s distance learning every day. This does not preclude parents from working together to develop an alternative plan: if one parent has the ability to work from home, or is currently out of work due to COVID-19, the parents might want to have that parent take the lead in supervising the children’s distance learning. In the example above, if mom is able to work from home four days per week and dad is not, it would be reasonable for the parents to work together in establishing a routine for the children whereby mom supervises the distance learning on her days working from home.
- What about the parent’s day job? There is no “one size fits all” answer here. This can be especially complicated when both parents are employed outside of the home and neither are able to work remotely. Some people will be forced to hire a tutor and/or a work-related childcare provider so they can work while their children learn, while others will quit their job to devote their time to guiding their children’s education. A change in a party’s income and/or a change in the amount of work-related childcare a party incurs can constitute a material change in circumstance, which could warrant a modification of child support.
While these issues created by COVID-19 are unprecedented to parents, they are also unprecedented to courts. Historically, judges have strongly advised parents to work together in overcoming disagreements. Courts in Virginia are legally required to base decisions regarding custody and visitation on the best interests of the child, applying the factors listed in Virginia Code § 20-124.3. One of those factors is each parent’s ability to cooperate in and resolve disputes regarding matters affecting the child. It is therefore imperative that parents try to work together in the midst of this pandemic.
For answers to your specific questions regarding COVID-19 and your new at-home virtual classroom, be sure to speak with an experienced family law attorney in your area. Livesay & Myers, P.C. has a team of experienced family lawyers with five convenient office locations, representing clients across Northern Virginia. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.