No doubt parents will recall the announcement made by our government on 18 March 2020 that schools across England would close indefinitely as a means of tackling the spread of Covid-19. The only pupils that have continued to attend school are children of key workers and vulnerable children. Parent’s across England (and the UK as a whole) have struggled to entertain and home school their children whilst, in many cases working from home themselves.
On 10 May, we all will have avidly listened to Boris Johnsons plans to reopen England and restart our economy. The government have initially proposed that schools could re-open on 01 June 2020, subject to five conditions relating to the virus being met, and with only pupils in Reception, Year 1, Year 6 returning full time (as well as the children of key workers and vulnerable children). Pupils in Year 10 and Year 12 are also to receive some face to face time with their teachers although the suggestion does not appear to be that they would return to school full time. There is yet to be any guidance on when pupils in other school years will be returning.
The government in their guidance has set out that pupils in these year groups are ‘strongly encouraged to attend’ which means that a return to school is not mandatory. Furthermore, pupils who are ‘shielding’ or where someone in their household is ‘shielding’ would not be expected to return. ‘Shielding’ in this context appears to apply to the ‘extremely clinically vulnerable’ and not to those who are ‘clinically vulnerable’ (guidance on this can be found here).
The Reopening of Schools during the pandemic
The return to school for pupils is likely to cause all sorts of issues for families in the context of family law.
Decisions about children returning to school
Firstly, the fact that the return to school is strongly encouraged and not mandatory could cause a dispute between parents in respect of whether their child should return to school. Some parents may feel cautious about a return and choose not to send their child back whereas other parents may well feel that sufficient steps have been taken to protect their child in school and their education must be prioritised. There is no right or wrong, but this is issue is likely to be viewed by the courts as being an exercise of parental responsibility and therefore a decision that needs to be made jointly by those who share parental responsibility for the child. If a dispute arises between the parents, an application for a Specific Issue Order might need to be made to the court in order for the court to determine the dispute.
Changes to child care arrnagements
Secondly, when looking at separated families, a return to school is likely to lead to a change in any child arrangements in place and this can often lead to disputes between parents about what the new arrangements should be.
It may be the case that the parents agree to return to the pre Covid-19 arrangements, but this may not be an acceptable solution to, for example, a non-resident parent who is furloughed or working from home and therefore is available to spend more time with the children than they would have been before the pandemic. Issues may also arise with siblings where one sibling has returned to school but the other has not. The non-resident parent might well seek to spend extended time with the sibling that is not in school.
As well as the usual parental disputes, unfortunately, the re-opening of schools could lead to parents abusing the Covid-19 pandemic in order control the time that a child spends with the other parent. This is not an acceptable situation and is not child focused and therefore parents need to ensure that this is dealt with head on. Children should never be used as a tool by either parent to further a vendetta or to hurt the other parent. Do remember that the courts view is that it is best for children to have a relationship with both of their parents, so long as it is safe for them to do so. The threat of Covid-19 in itself does not make it unsafe for a child to have a relationship with both of their parents (subject of course to the child shielding due to health vulnerabilities).
These are just some examples of the sorts of disputes that might arise and ultimately there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution. When considering the arrangements, the priority must always be the best interests of the children and what arrangement would work best for them. The parents need to really take themselves and their wishes and desire for equality in time away from the decision making in order to focus on the children.
Different child arrangements for siblings across year groups
Where there are siblings across year groups, they are already likely to be feeling a sense of injustice because they have to return to school and their sibling does not or that they cannot return to school and their sibling can. To introduce different child arrangements for the siblings could increase their sense of injustice and therefore may not be in the children’s best interests.
The children need a routine and they need to understand the arrangements that have been made for them so do try and keep it simple and remember that whatever arrangement you agree to, is only likely to last until mid-July when the children break up for their school summer holidays, so it really is only a short term arrangement.
Remember that time with children can be face to face but it can also take place via video calling. This can seem like a lesser form of contact but actually a lot can be achieved via a video call including, but not limited to, reading a bedtime story, playing a boardgame, doing homework or simply just having a chat. Do be creative and age appropriate in how you use it as young children will engage very differently to older children.
Where a dispute does arise, applications can be made to the court, including on an urgent basis, to resolve the dispute. But often there are far less contentious means of negotiating an agreement and these methods should also be considered.
We at SA Law can advise and represent you not only in court proceedings but we can also advise you on potential child arrangements, help prepare parenting plans or engage in negotiations on your behalf with the other parent. Where mediation is an option, we can support you through this and we also offer the service ourselves.