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Returning to the Classroom During the Pandemic – Who Decides?

School starts soon, and parents in the Piedmont Triad area are understandably worried about their children’s exposure to COVID-19. Do I send my child back to the classroom, home school them, or opt for online classes? Fears over the lack of social distancing, schools enforcing mask policies of older students, and not requiring mask wearing for younger children are just a few of the concerns. Many parents’ fears, when faced with the threat of exposure and further spread of COVID, are only made worse when the parents are no longer together and cannot agree on how to address the situation. If you find yourself dealing with whether your children should return to school, with or without a court-ordered custody order in place, an experienced family law attorney can assist you.

For parents of a separated household, conflicting opinions on what is the best for minor children often arise. During the COVID-19 pandemic, children returning to the classroom has become a lightning rod for disagreements between separated or divorced parents. Which parent gets to decide what is best for the minor child in returning to school?

In North Carolina, a parent having legal custody of the children has the authority to make major life decisions that affect the minor children. Major life decisions may include but are not limited to healthcare, religious preferences, and education. A parent with legal custody of minor children has the sole right to access medical records and educational records. Similarly, a parent granted sole custody, where the children stay with one parent for all of their overnights and the other parent only has visitation of the children, generally has the sole decision-making authority.

Parents with joint legal custody, where both parents share overnights with the children, either by consent or through a court order, share this decision-making responsibility for their children. Joint legal custody grants both parents the right to be involved in the healthcare, religious, and educational decisions for the minor children. With joint legal custody, either parent has access to the medical and educational records of the children.

When a custody order is in place, the parties should follow the language of the custody order as closely as possible. Failure to comply with the court order can result in the violating party being held in contempt of court and being responsible for the former spouse’s attorney fees.

If the parties are recently separated, and there is no custody order in place designating which party has the decision-making authority, the parties should attempt to work together as if there is a joint custody order in place. When parents work together in an attempt to reach a solution, it helps keep all parties safe, prevents conflict, and promotes a positive environment for the children. Children of divorced or separating families are already suffering from increased fear and anxiety related to COVID-19 and the breakup of their family. What they do not need is the addition of their parents fighting on what is best for the children.

Additionally, due to closures related to COVID, the court system has slowed to a crawl. During this pandemic, parties working together to reach agreements on issues like children returning to the classroom can be much more efficient and reduce confrontations between the parties.