The start of the new school year has brought along concerns and precautions that most families have not every experienced before. Some parents have made decisions not to enroll their children in in-person schools, preferring to either home school for the year, or find a school that is teaching remotely, such as private schools. In a recent issue before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, two parents could not agree on whether their children should attend school in-person. A wrinkle in the matter was that the mother said the decision was hers to make alone.

Parents with different positions on the safe return to school

The parties began living together in 2007 and were married in 2011. They had two children before they separated in April 2016. Their children, aged 8 and 6, have started grades 3 and 1.

A high-conflict separation led to a 9-day trial in 2018 in which decision-making was assigned to both parties, except for some, including medical decisions, which were assigned to the mother.

The mother took the position that it is not safe for the children to return to school in person. Her new partner, who is also a teacher and with whom she has had a baby, has underlying medical conditions that leave him immunocompromised. She told the court that not only is she worried about the older children getting sick, but she is also concerned for her new partner and baby’s health. She proposed to have the children homeschool with her while she is on maternity leave. Finally, the mother argued that since she is charged with making medical decisions for the children, this should be her decision alone to make.

The father, who is also a teacher, said the mother has confused the children’s best interests with what she believes are the best interests of her partner and their baby. He said that while he doesn’t wish anybody harm, there is a benefit to having the girls return to a normal routine and some semblance of their lives before COVID-19. The father also argues that this a matter of education, not a medical decision, and that the parents are jointly responsible for it

The court sees the return to school as an educational decision

The court wrote that it was not persuaded by the mother’s position that it is a medical issue and not an educational one. The court explained that the government of Ontario has provided at-home learning options for parents who don’t want to send their children to school, but that this system breaks down when parents cannot agree.

The court made two important points in reaching its decision. The first was that the medical risks faced by the father should the children contract COVID-19 are serious and that a return to school increases those risks. The court found this risk to be unnecessary. Secondly, the court did not buy into the father’s attempt to draw distinction between the mother’s new partner’s health concerns and those of the children, stating that the best interests of the children are connected to the well-being of everybody they live with.

The court ordered the children to attend school virtually during the fall and urged them to come to a consensus on what to do for the second half of the school year.

Separation, divorce, and other family disputes are generally stressful and emotional. If you are contemplating a separation or divorce, your best short term plan is to contact an experienced family lawyer immediately to understand your options, and to formulate a strategy for moving forward. Contact the knowledgeable, effective, and compassionate family lawyer at NULaw online or at 416-481-5604 to book a consultation.

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