COVID, the Courts, and Sending Your Child to School

The nightmare schools are facing when divorced parents can’t agree.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Divorce means writing down all the details of how you’re going to parent your children. Maybe you and your partner can reach an agreement on your own, or maybe the courts will decide for you.

For example, who will cover them under their health insurance? Who will pay the medical bills not covered by insurance? Who will claim them as dependents for income tax purposes? Who will pay for karate lessons and baseball uniforms? Where will they go to school?

Normally, both parents will have equal say in all matters affecting their children. Both will come to doctor's appointments and parent-teacher meetings. Both can receive grade and behavior reports. Both can communicate with school officials independently and provide input.

This process assumes that parents will put their children’s best interests first and foremost. But what happens when neither side knows what those best interests are?

The lack of in-person educational options disproportionately harms low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities. These students are far less likely to have access to private instruction and care and far more likely to rely on key school-supported resources like food programs, special education services, counseling, and after-school programs to meet basic developmental needs. — CDC, 07/23/2020

As a result of the pandemic, parents are now spending thousands of dollars on legal fees (money better used elsewhere) in an attempt to get the court “on their side” when it comes to in-person or remote learning. This is because each parent naturally believes they know what’s best for their child.

These sorts of arguments have always played out in courtrooms all across America. But before the pandemic, the stakes were much lower. Which math teacher should my child have in the sixth grade? Should changes be made to their IEP (Individualized Education Program)? Which school district is better?

Now the arguments are couched in terms of life or death.

Father: My child is a cancer survivor — I don’t want her to attend school in person.

Mother: Here is a letter from our daughter’s oncologist saying that she’s fine and that her immune system is like any other child’s. I want her to go to school.

Who’s right? School administrators are in the business of operating an educational facility and teaching children their ABC’s, not cutting the Gordian knot. They haven’t been trained in the use of mediation techniques during the collapse of civilization. They won’t choose sides, and they won’t make the decision for you.

When your relationship to your co-parent has already been subjected to scrutiny by the court, the logical place to turn is that same court. That’s their job, right? To listen to both sides, examine the evidence, and make a ruling as to what’s best for the child.

Unfortunately, courts that were slow before have been effectively paralyzed by staff cuts and the bumpy transition to video as a result of the pandemic. Parties can expect a ruling in a few months... maybe. The other side then has the right to object to that ruling (another few months). All while you suffer through a multitude of Zoom hearings at anywhere from $250 to $600 an hour in attorney’s fees and your family is put through the proverbial meat grinder.

In the meantime, both the courts and the schools are hoping desperately that you’ll run out of either money or patience, and that one side will simply give up. This is what usually happens. In America’s family court system, whoever has the most money and the most stamina usually wins.

So before you head back to court to fight with your ex over your children’s education during COVID, know that it’s going to be an expensive and bruising battle no matter which side you’re on. Like so much in American today, there’s no easy answer.

Legal secretary by day, insomniac by night. BA, MA. If life is a journey, I’m lost. Slackjaw, Points In Case, The Funny Times, The Haven. Twitter: @blade_funner

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