Back to School with COVID-19
On Thursday, July 30th, Premier Doug Ford and the Education Minister released a plan for back-to-school for the fall. Elementary school children will return to school five days per week for a full day. Secondary school students at designated boards, including Ottawa-Carleton and Ottawa Catholic, will attend class on alternate days or alternate schedules for in-person and online classes. The first day of school for most Boards, including Ottawa-Carleton, is September 3rd.
Safety measures and other strategies have been developed to ensure a safe environment, including mandatory masks for students Grade 4 to Grade 12, and regular hygiene and social distance practices. Questions are sure to emerge as parents, students, and staff embark on this new school year that only time and application will be able to answer.
A bigger question, however, is, will parents have their children attend despite the ongoing pandemic. Currently, Ontario’s model does allow parents to decide whether or not their child returns to school in-person this September. Children not attending would have the option of remote learning.
This is a difficult decision for any family to make, and may be something that is amplified where parents are separated and decision making may have a different structure.
Will a child be forced to go to school, where one parent wants him or her to attend and the other parent does not? How will safety precautions and other directives play into parents’ expectations of what should be done and what will make them feel that their children, and their households, are safe?
The courts have not had to address these question yet; however, with September just around the corner, we can expect litigation on this issue soon.
The courts have, though, given us some guidance as to what they do expect from parents during this pandemic as they decide whether or not to send their children to school.
There is a duty on parents to try and negotiate and work out issues between themselves rather than run to court. Parents are expected to communicate with each other. They are expected to “meaningfully co-operate”, especially where safety and the well-being of a child are at issue. Not to do so would be, as one Judge put it, a “failure to parent”.
Courts are suggesting parties turn to alternative dispute resolution methods, like mediation or arbitration. In Ottawa, the Virtual Family Law Project has been created to help bring these services to families through remote and virtual technology, so that they can continue resolving their matters outside of court.
There are many unknowns about what the school year will bring. While parents may struggle to agree to what the best course of action is, the child’s best interests must stay at the forefront. In Medu v Medu, the Court recognized that the return to school will likely involve new routines and precautions that families will have to adapt to. However, the Court simultaneously stressed that both parents need to provide support during what is already “an exciting but stressful time for children”.
The sentiment of the first COVID-19 case, Ribeiro v Wright continues to resonate as we move through what may be a new normal: “none of us have ever experienced anything like this. We are all going to have to try a bit harder – for the sake of our children.” This will certainly apply to the discussions about school and what is appropriate.