As more and more states, counties, and cities implement shelter-in-place in orders to combat the spread of COVID-19, it is becoming more and more likely that many school districts will remain closed for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year. As a result, most parents will be faced with the task of keeping up with household duties, while working from home and keeping up with their children’s education at the same time. These circumstances present additional challenges for divorced parents. This is an unprecedented situation in recent history and parents, divorced or otherwise, should utilize the many tools and resources that may be at their disposal to help guide them through these difficult times. There are a number of tips that parents can use to not only help themselves and their children get through this difficult time, but can help avoid potential issues with their divorce and/or ex-spouse.
Education Is Important But So Is Mental Health
For most parents, after health, education is often the most important aspect of a child’s life. Parents are now faced with the task of keeping up with their child’s education while schools remain closed. This may be easy for some parents, while more difficult for others. If you find yourself in the latter category, it is critically important to understand that most parents are likely feeling the same way. Do not beat yourself up over the fact that you may be struggling with this new way of life. In addition to the education they have received, teachers spend a great deal of time preparing for the school year. Parents who homeschool do the same. It is unrealistic to expect that parents will be able to create a full curriculum for their children in a short period of time. Add to this the challenges of learning to work from home and the task becomes more difficult. Add to this the general level of anxiety that many people are experiencing because of the uncertainty surrounding the virus and being cut-off from usual social outlets and the task may seem unsurmountable.
Make no mistake, your child’s education is important, but so is their mental health (as well as yours). Most people have heard the analogy as to why parents are instructed to put on their own oxygen mask on an airplane before putting a mask on their children. If a parent is stressed and overwhelmed, there is a good chance their child can sense it. Children themselves are already likely to experience some level of anxiety and fear related to the current situation and drastic changes to their way of life. While it is important to keep you children occupied and learning in this situation, trying to force a situation that is not working for your or your child is not only counter-productive, but could be potentially harmful their emotional development and mental health.
Research has suggested that one of the most beneficial activities for children is reading. This can be a child reading on their own, reading to a parent, or a parent reading to a child. If you or your child are experiencing stress or anxiety related to teaching from home, it may be helpful to step away and just read. There are a number of resources available online and through local library websites to find books that are appropriate for independent reading levels or to be read aloud. For example there are both national and local “Battle of the Books” lists that can be easily found online. Newberry Award winners or nominees are a great place to look for books to read aloud, especially for younger children who may not be ready to read these books themselves. Parents can also use this opportunity to re-visit their favorite books from their own childhood by introducing them to their children. There are also a wide variety of audio-books that are available online and through local library websites. If you are like me, you may find as the parent that you become just as, if not more, engaged in listening to an audio-book as your child. If children are reluctant to sit and listen, they may be enticed by a cup of tea or hot chocolate, along with a small snack (preferably a healthful snack, but these circumstances may warrant a sweet treat!).
The current situation also presents the opportunity for learning opportunities outside of the subjects typically taught at school. Perhaps these circumstances could be used to teach your child to cook, knit, crochet, paint, draw, build, or any number of other skills. What if you don’t know how to do any of those things? This could be an opportunity to learn along with your child. As an added bonus, many of these activities incorporate skills many of these types of activities can be done while reading or listening to a good book.
Overall, these are stressful and uncertain times for both parents and children. It is ok not to try to force a regular school day schedule with regular curriculum every day, if a parent is cultivating their relationship with their children and encouraging learning in other ways. It is also ok to allow children to have some down time, in the form of games, t.v., or movies, just not all the time.
Keeping Up with Your Child’s Education
If you are looking to keep up with your child’s regular education, at least to some extent, many school districts are providing remote learning opportunities for their students, such as video-conferencing with teachers, in addition to the learning resources they may already provide. Most districts, schools, or individual teachers will have a variety of resources available on their websites. There are also a number of free online learning tools, such as Kahn Academy that offer a number of online lessons, videos, and assessments across for a variety of age groups and subjects.
Many celebrities, artists, authors, and illustrators have also used the current situation to provide different opportunities for children. For example, Josh Gad, who provides the voice of Olaf in the Frozen movies (as if most parents didn’t already know that) has posted videos on Twitter of him reading different children’s picture books. Mo Willems, writer and illustrator of books such as Don’t Let the Pidgeon Drive the Bus, The Unlimited Squirrels series, and the Knuffle Bunny series (my personal favorite), has a series of Lunch Doodles videos through the Kennedy Center in which he provides instructions for drawing different characters. It can be daunting to try to fill the time at home, especially while also trying to work, but these resources may help parents productively fill that time (while hopefully giving the parent time to work, or dare I say, a minute to themselves).
Issues for Divorced or Separate Parents
Every parent is facing new challenges as a result of COVID-19, but parents living in separate households with shared physical custody of their children, have their own unique challenges with respect to education. The added stress and anxiety associated with these circumstances can give rise to added conflict with an ex-spouse, particularly if there is already a history of conflict. It is important, now more than ever, for parents to remember to focus on the best interests of their children. Because many courts across the country are operating on a limited or emergency basis only, it may be more difficult to access the Court. Parents should not expect to have immediate access to the court except for legitimate emergencies, and should also expect some delay as to a court’s ability to address non-emergency issues once the situation returns to normal (or more normal at least). As a result, parents will have to rely more heavily on their own ability to resolve issues concerning their children’s education during this time, whether that is through counsel or alternative dispute resolution.
If parent’s have joint decision-making authority for educational decisions, it may be unclear as to whether participation in remote learning opportunities offered by the child’s school is considered a major decision (requiring a joint decision) or a day-to-day decision (which can generally made without the other party’s consent). In either case, the best approach is to focus on the children and for the parents to get on the same page as much as possible as to approaching remote learning. Parents who already utilize communication tools such as Talking Parents or Our Family Wizard, can use those tools to not only communicate about learning schedules, but can also coordinate through shared calendars. Use of a shared calendar will not help the parents know which parent will be ensuring that certain subject work is completed, but will also help mitigate the child’s ability to play the parents off of each other (such telling both parents that work will be completed while at the other parent’s home).
Parents should also discuss their expectations as to enforcing remote learning under these circumstances. As discussed above, increasing the stress and anxiety for both children and parents by forcing a strict learning schedule, may not be beneficial for anyone. It would not be surprising if one parent has a different perspective or expectation than the other. One parent may feel is important to keep a strict schedule and insist that all course work is completed, while the other may feel a more relaxed approach is appropriate. Neither approach is inherently right or wrong. Given the lack of access to the courts and the generalized increase in anxiety, parents should be aware of these differences, and may have to be more willing to accept these differences, for the benefit of their children during these uncertain times.
Whether or not participation in remote learning through a child’s school is considered a joint or day-to-day decision is perhaps more relevant if one parent has sole educational decision-making authority. On the one hand, participation in remote learning is akin to ensuring attendance at a particular school. Arguably, and depending on the specific laws of each state, a parent with sole educational making authority has the ability to enforce the child’s attendance at a specific school of their choice. On the other hand, decisions regarding attendance or absences based on illness, doctor’s appointments, etc. are more likely to be considered day-to-day decisions which do not require the consent of the other party, regardless of how major decision-making authority has been allocated.
Similar to the discussion above regarding joint decision-making, the best approach is for parents to try to get on the same page. If that is not possible, this is a time to pick and choose battles. Since many courts are operating on a limited or emergency basis, parents should not expect to get immediate relief from the court regarding a dispute over a child’s education at this time. If disputes during this timer are part of a longer pattern of issues, a parent should keep a record or journal of these issues with dates and a short explanation of the issues. This record can then be used later if the need arises, or a parent could consider filing a motion to address larger issues now, knowing that there may be a delay as to when the court addresses the issue (basically to get in line now).
Overall, parents should try to be aware and understand that these are uncertain times for everyone. Uncertainty is often accompanied by anxiety and fear. Anxiety and fear can often lead to emotional responses that might not otherwise be expressed (I won’t quote Yoda, but anyone reading this who is a Star Wars fan, sees where I am going). While these circumstances may present opportunities for increased conflict, some families are finding that their shared goal of keeping their children safe against an unknown but powerful threat is creating collaboration and communication. Compromise is almost always the best option to resolve disputes in family. This is even more true now.
Jon Eric Stuebner is an attorney at Griffiths Law PC in Lone Tree, CO. His law practice is comprised of all areas of family law, including high conflict and complex asset dissolution cases, allocation of parental rights, and post-decree disputes. Jon Eric is also a former educator with a Master’s Degree in education.