Back to school planning can be stressful, and perhaps more so for two household families. Even for separated and divorced parents who have worked out how to cooperate when it comes to their kids, back to school usually brings its own set of struggles. This year is no different as families face a new back to school challenge: COVID-19. As you, your ex-spouse, and your child adjust to this ever-changing school year, here are a few things you should consider.
Review Your Parenting Plan
Revisiting your Agreement or Order now may reduce scheduling problems during the school year. Each year transporting children to and from school, arranging after school care, and coordinating the children’s schedules for extracurricular activities present challenges for many co-parents. With the introduction of COVID-19 this year, things have gotten even more complicated.
For many families virtual learning will create new obstacles regarding their child’s schedule, especially during the other parent’s parenting time. With some students attending school one day per week or only on certain days, or even only on certain weeks, establishing a routine may prove difficult. Consider sharing an electronic calendar, such as Google calendar, with the other parent so you both are clear about where the children are and who has what responsibilities.
Also, look to your Parenting Agreement or Custody Order to ensure that you are following information sharing provisions, and talk with your family law attorney about making any modification or adjustments to your order that are beneficial in addressing your family’s new circumstances.
If you have questions about this, review your custodial documents and begin conversations with your co-parent about this now.
Deciding Which Learning Options Best Suit the Child
The parent who gets to make this decision depends on the Custody Order and Parenting Plan. Generally, if the parents share joint custody, they’ll work together to decide on an option that is best suited for their child. Alternatively, if one of the parents is granted sole custody, they’ll typically have the legal rights to make that decision on their own, independent of the other co-parent.
Responsibility for Supervising the Child’s Distance Learning
Assuming that there is already a custody order or parenting plan that has been established, the general rule of thumb would be that the responsibility to supervise the child would fall on the custodial parent that day. This can look different for families depending on their parenting plan. For example, if the parents share physical custody, then they would each be responsible for the supervising the distanced learning during their scheduled parenting time. Alternatively, if one parent has sole custody and the other parent has visitation rights a few days a week, the parent with sole custody would likely bear the responsibility of supervising the learning every day.
However, parents are always welcome to work together to find a solution that works for everyone. For instance, one parent may have more flexibility with their schedule or ability to oversee the child’s education, whether that’s due to working from home, or being out of a job due to Covid-19. In this situation, the parents may agree that the adult who has more flexibility can take further responsibility for overseeing the child’s schedule for the time-being and under the circumstances.
In a distance learning environment, parents are counted upon to continually communicate with teachers regarding their student’s progress and assignments, largely using virtual programs such as Zoom and Google Classroom.
It’s critical that parents in two household families each have access to all school records, assignments, and platforms from which the teacher may communicate with students. Many parenting plans and custody orders give both parents equal access to all school records, including homework assignments, school personnel contact information, report cards, progress reports, and test results.
When the custody order or parent plan requires one parent to affirmatively provide school information and updates to the other, it is best for that parent to overcommunicate with the other parent regarding their child’s learning and school assignments and encourage the co-parent to communicate with the child’s school as well.
Health Emergency Situations
If possible, both parents should be listed as emergency contacts at the child’s school, given the COVID-19 pandemic and possibility of instances of the virus at school. Parents should also have a plan in place for what happens in the event that there is an outbreak at their child’s school, the child contracts the virus, and what to do if either parent contracts COVID-19.
Distance Learning Expenses
In this new age of distance learning, school supplies and school related expenses look very different than before. This year’s school supplies might include a computer, internet access, a quiet separate workspace, required software and applications for study, earphones, printer, and more. These supplies come with additional expenses that may be well beyond what was contemplated in your present child support calculation and parenting plan. Planning for these supplies and expenses, including ways to reduce costs by sharing some of the items, will require additional communication and agreements between the parents to help ensure that regardless of where the child learns, the child has full access to everything they need.
Adjustments to Parenting Time
Parents do not normally have to worry about parenting time when a child is at school, but distance learning means that parents may need to determine who will be with the child during their distance learning, if the child is too young to be left on their own. If the best situation for the child’s distance learning does not match their parenting plan, the parents will need to modify the plan to adjust to this. Adjustments to the parenting plan can include deciding on specific dates and times for the “school day” and when and how transferring the child will occur, as well as considering adding parenting time to the non-supervising parent to balance times the child is with each of the parents.
Child Support Adjustments
Complications can arise for parents when both work away from home, and therefore have to consider alternative options for their children’s learning schedule, such as a childcare provider, or tutor. If either parent experiences a change in their income, or are suddenly paying larger fees in childcare or tutoring, this may constitute a substantial change in material circumstances. In this event, the parent might want to consider modifying their divorce decree to address child support needs.
Whatever the Problem Try to Work Together
Distance learning complications that have appeared because of the pandemic are not only new to parents, but to the courts as well. While judges have long advised parents to try and work together when disagreement as to custody and visitation arise, in the event that an agreement cannot be reached, Oregon courts will eventually base these decisions on the best interests of the child. In coming to this decision, they may take into consideration the willingness of each parent to resolve disputes and work together, which is why it’s more important than ever to try and find common ground and healthy co-parenting strategies with your ex. Some important topics to discuss within your co-parenting arrangement may include:
- Eliminating Screens for Two Hours Before Bedtime:
Out of necessity, many of us are on our laptops for majority of the day. Be intentional about cutting out technology from your schedule at least two hours before laying down for bed, as the blue light from screens has been shown to disrupt sleep cycles. This is especially important for kids. Consider setting limits on any apps that might "ding" or offer notifications. Using an actual alarm clock, rather than a phone, can also reduce the temptation to scroll the internet before bed.
- Enjoying One Screen-Free Meal a Day:
Make it a family goal to sit down for at least one screen-free family meal a day. Depending on your family schedule, this may mean starting your day with an easy breakfast at the table, or perhaps dinner once everyone has finished their daily tasks. Whatever meal you decide on, be intentional about spending time connecting with your kids without any technology present. Turn off the background TV noise, leave your phones in your rooms, and enjoy each other's company through conversation or games.
- Putting a Limit on Scrolling Time:
If you're at home with your kids, carve out the time to go for quick 5-15-minute walks throughout the day. These walks don't need to be long or rigorous, but taking a break from screen time to get outdoors, stretch the legs, take in the fresh air, and just observe a difficult form of stimulation is good for both the body and the mind. Studies have shown that spending time outdoors can improve productivity, mood, and a sense of self-esteem, and ultimately can serve as a great reset from screen time.
If you're needing to modify your parenting plan, please do not hesitate to contact our office at (503) 227-0200 to get started.