Separated Parents Disagree – Back to School or Online School

Last week, the Ontario government announced plans for the return of children to the classroom. This has caused instances where separated parents disagree – back to school or online school? There is no easy answer to this and with the deadline looming for a decision, it may feel a little overwhelming.

Sadly, some parents use this as a way to impose their will and yet another tool in their arsenal to increase conflict. The reality is that the needs of each child are different and the needs of each family are different. This article will not provide you with any answer, but rather will offer a few points for consideration. I am hopeful that reasonable parents will be able to collaborate and make the right decision.

When Does a Decision Have to Be Made on the Type of Schooling for Ottawa Students?

Most school boards in Ottawa require a decision in the very near future on what parents are deciding. It is a true game of the chicken and egg. Parents don’t want to make a decision until they have more information. Alternatively, school boards can’t provide more information until they have information on the number of students attending.

Unfortunately a decision needs to be made soon. While it is possible that school boards may extend the deadline for a decision, the start of school is only a few weeks away. The majority of separated parents have joint custody, which means that the parents need to agree on what is in the best interests of the child.

Separated Parents Disagree – Back to School or Online School?

When parents can’t agree on virtual school or in-class schooling, the first call may be to their lawyer. Though I am a lawyer, I don’t agree with this course of action. In my opinion, a mediator is the better person to turn to. While going to Court is an option, it is expensive, and one person will walk away angry at the decision.

There is no case law on this issue yet and even if there was, it may not be helpful. The legal framework for resolving this decision is “the best interests of the child”. This means that a change in a few factors will result in a very different outcome. What is right for one family, may not be right for the next.

Very early on in the pandemic situation, Justice Pazaratz issued a decision that remains relevant to this day. In that case, the mother attempted to stop all access by the father. Her reasoning was that she was social distancing with the children. Clearly her application was not successful. There is one paragraph in that decision that is very helpful:

Judges won’t need convincing that COVID-19 is extremely serious, and that meaningful precautions are required to protect children and families. We know there’s a problem. What we’re looking for is realistic solutions. We will be looking to see if parents have made good faith efforts to communicate; to show mutual respect; and to come up with creative and realistic proposals which demonstrate both parental insight and COVID-19 awareness.

How to Decide Back to School or Virtual School

The best advice I can provide is don’t insist you are right. No matter how certain you believe you are right. If both parents insist they are right, conflict rises and nobody wins. Communication is necessary on both sides. Though difficult, work hard to understand why the other parent is taking the position they are.

There was a decision last month in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice that provides a little insight into how a Judge makes a decision. In that case, the father was planning to take the child to a cottage for a holiday with extended family.

The Judge said: “I find I can take judicial notice of other government information that is widely available in the public domain about COVID-19 social gatherings.” This means that a Judge will not attempt to offer a medical opinion. Further, the Judge will not rely on an unqualified parent to provide a medical opinion. Rather, the Judge will review the significant information provided by Public Health officials. With that information in hand, it will be applied to the situation your child is in.

With the knowledge on how a Judge will decide, parents can save themselves thousands of dollars. Rather than waiting for the Judge to decide, review the publicly available health information. Public Health officials are saying they are sending their children back to school. This isn’t the right decision for every child, but it is instructive.

Considerations for Sending a Child Back to School

Is there someone in the family that is vulnerable to an outbreak? If so, my reading of the public health directives is that it may be best to keep your child at home. If you are a parent who insists the child go to school, against the insistence of the other parent, stop for a moment. Stop to understand why the other parent is insisting on keeping the child at home.

If part of your decision making involves a medical diagnosis of another person, reconsider. A Judge is not a medical expert, so conduct a meaningful self-reflection on the strength of your position. If your evidence is that the medical diagnosis of another person isn’t correct, you won’t be successful. The Judge will likely accept the diagnosis of a medical professional and make a decision with that point presumed to be true.

Five Considerations – Back to School vs Online School

  1. Truly listen to the other parent. If their decision doesn’t make sense, say that in a positive way. Meaningful negotiation can’t happen if you don’t understand why the other side wants a certain thing.
  2. Truly think about why you are insisting on a particular course of action. Be realistic and honest with yourself. Are you just disagreeing with the other parent because you feel you have to disagree?
  3. Reflect on your child’s medical information. Is there a diagnosis that makes the decision easy?
  4. Reflect on the medical diagnosis for each person your child is in contact with regularly. Don’t question the medical diagnosis, but consider whether the diagnosis is helpful in coming to a decision.
  5. What are the best interests of the child? Are there mental health concerns that sway the decision one way or the other? If you believe there are mental health concerns, is there medical evidence that supports your belief?

The Practical Realities of Going Back to School

Practically speaking, it is quite possible that it is too late to have a Judge make a decision for the start of school. While parents can change their mind into the school year, the longer the child is successful in whatever the current situation is, the status quo will likely win out.

If a Judge isn’t going to make the decision for you, the parents are going to have to decide on their own. If one party continues to be unreasonable, look elsewhere for a resolution. Reach out to mediation, or to an independent third party you both trust.

Meaningful negotiation on this point has to go beyond both sides insisting they are right. You know your child and their needs far better than a Judge. These are unprecedented times, but your decision making process needs to be the same, no matter the issue. The only consideration a Judge will have is the best interests of the child. That needs to be your only consideration as well.

Need Some Legal Advice

Separated parents disagree – back to school or online school. If this is applicable to your family, contact Hearty Law today for more information. Hearty Law provides legal services on all family law financial issues. This includes, hidden assets, concealed income, child support, spousal support, retroactive support, division of property and all other needs.

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