What Can Divorced Parents Sharing Custody Learn From Maricopa County’s Fall School Plans?

Scott David Stewart, a family law attorney and founder of Stewart Law Group (Courtesy photo)

Scott David Stewart, a family law attorney and founder of Stewart Law Group (Courtesy photo)

Arizona’s plans for online K-12 schooling this fall in Maricopa County will prove especially complicated for divorced parents who share custody, says Stewart Law Group.

While some of the county’s school districts and charter schools have reopened for in-person classes, others are starting with remote learning as they monitor three public health benchmarks on a regular basis to see when it may be safe to return, notes Stewart Law Group, a Phoenix-based firm.

Overseeing students learning at home will be stressful enough, and the uncertainty over when in-person schooling will return will cause even more headaches among divorced families, says Scott David Stewart, a divorce attorney and founder of Stewart Law Group.

Texas Lawyer spoke recently with Stewart about the special challenges divorced parents with shared custody have when confronted with uncertain school district plans during the pandemic.

What is the status of the Maricopa County schools for the fall? It sounds like the district will ease into holding classes in-person.

School has started, but most of them are sticking with an online learning plan. We have had several schools open for on-campus learning, although most of those schools seem to be private or charter schools. A public-school system in Queen Creek opened for on-campus learning, but not without controversy. Several teachers resigned and in a nearby school district a teacher sickout prevented on-campus learning from moving forward. Several teachers, administrative staff and parents I have spoken with all think on-campus learning will be delayed several more months, with many feeling that January is more likely the target date for it to start.

What are some of the special challenges divorced parents with shared custody are facing with this arrangement?

Co-parenting is challenging in the best of situations, but adding a pandemic can make the trivial decisions important and major decisions life-altering. The biggest challenge right now is how to handle on campus learning, if that’s an option for your child, especially if one of the parents has an underlying condition or otherwise falls within an at-risk group for COVID-19. If the parents do not agree, and they have shared legal decision-making, there is no current guidance on how the court will resolve those issues. I anticipate several of these cases will be resolved in court very soon, with the most likely outcome being that one parent will become the sole decision-maker over education,or at least making the final decision. If the parent with health concerns is not successful, it very likely may result in them not seeing their children for several months for fear of catching coronavirus. This same situation holds true if one parent’s job requires them to have more contact with the general public, while another works from home with at-risk conditions. In this situation, the courts have generally not interfered with the current parenting plan, and children have been shuttling between households. These decisions are difficult for parents, and now the court will be stuck settling disputes, with potentially life-changing consequences.

How has the pandemic impacted parenting and schooling at home? For instance, what trends have emerged for parents coping with children being educated at home, and are there any other issues that they could face in the months ahead?

In addition to the above, some parents are having difficulty figuring out how to get their kids schooled while still working, especially in single-parent homes. I know several parents that have hired in-home help or have taken their children to pop-up locations that pivoted from their core business to offer schooling assistance while parents are working.

While these options are great, they are not always financially feasible for many divorced families. I am hearing stories of many parents working from home balancing online learning with their own jobs and now essentially working two jobs, adding many working hours to their day. Imagine your K-3 school aged child trying to navigate a computer, download assignments, upload assignments, clicking on the wrong screen, closing their Zoom screen or the many other problems that can arise with young children learning online without constant assistance. It’s proving very challenging.

What else have you observed about attending school during a pandemic?

The theme I am hearing from parents and teachers alike is that they want on-campus learning because they all feel that is the best environment for their children. I have heard that the suicide rate is up for school-aged kids that have lost their social connection and are feeling lost and left out of society. Also, reports of abuse have dropped, because mandated reporters are not seeing vulnerable and at-risk kids, which leave them without an escape from an unhealthy environment. These are just two of the many issues that we are seeing, and the list will continue growing as children are stuck at home. The solutions are not easy, and the decisions are difficult, but we are seeing families and children being pulled at the seams.

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