Child Custody in the Time of COVID-19: Spring Break, Summer & Holidays Edition
In these unprecedented times of Stay At Home and remote or closed schools, how does a custody order or parenting agreement apply to breaks, summers & holidays?
Undoubtedly, we are in a time of more questions than definitive answers. What we can rely upon are the:
· Maryland Judiciary’s Statement on Matters Concerning Children & Families
· Governor Hogan’s Stay At Home Order
· School calendar for your child’s/children school/s and
· Court order or parenting agreement regarding your family.
The Judiciary’s Statement is helpful guidance for separated families whose children travel between parents and households for parenting time. It is also a policy statement from the Maryland Judiciary that parenting time/schedule should continue as normally as possible and health and safety allow. Court Orders (and by extension written Agreements) are still in effect. And, parents who agree can jointly decide to deviate from their Orders and written Agreements.
Governor Hogan’s Stay At Home Order allows parents to leave home to transport children for parenting time, as discussed in this blog post.
TIP: Carry a copy of your Court Order or parenting Agreement with you when transporting your children for parenting time. If you have neither because the parenting time schedule is informal, then either carry a letter from your attorney describing the parenting time and reason for your leaving home or carry an e-mail or text between you and the other parent confirming your informal schedule.
So far, so good. But what about changes in the school calendar? Or, closure of schools for the rest of the school year? What do these mean for the parenting time schedule?
School Year v. Summer:
Start by looking at your Court Order or parenting Agreement. Does it treat the school year differently from the summer?
If not, then it’s the schedule as usual. If different, then:
If school is still in session remotely, then this is still the “school year” and not yet time to start a different summer schedule. Again, parents can mutually agree otherwise. But without mutual agreement, the order or agreement applies.
If school is closed for the rest of the year without any remote learning, then parents are faced with either jointly deciding which schedule applies or applying the school calendar as if school were still in session. If parents cannot jointly agree, then my general thoughts are:
· Holidays aren’t cancelled just because we can’t gather or go to places of worship as we normally would; so,
· The “school year” portion of the parenting time schedule isn’t cancelled just because a school is closed without remote learning. Otherwise put, just because it’s actually spring, COVID-19 and school closures don’t actually make it summer.
Breaks (for example, Spring Break):
First, check your court order or parenting agreement to see if it treats Breaks (Spring or Winter) differently than the regular school year schedule. If yes, then:
· Look at the school’s calendar. Some calendars have changed, while others remain the same.
· If Spring Break has changed, then parents can agree to follow the original Spring Break calendar for their parenting time, accounting for any remote learning requirements. However if Spring Break has changed and parents cannot agree, then the revised school calendar applies.
By analogy, Spring Break could be shortened for a variety of reasons (too many snow days, for example); COVID-19 doesn’t make it any different (absent health or safety considerations, which this blog doesn’t address).
TIP: Check your Order or Agreement for any right of first refusal requirements. If changes in Spring Break dates mean a parent unexpectedly has parenting time and is unavailable, there may be a requirement to offer that time to the other parent. If you don’t know what a right of first refusal is, you can read more here.
Again, start by reading your custody and parenting Order or Agreement. What holidays are covered by your Order or Agreement?
Going back to the Judiciary’s Statement (discussed above), the Order or Agreement applies unless parents mutually agree otherwise. If the Order or Agreement includes specific starting and ending dates and times, there you are.
If, however, holiday start and end times are defined in relation to the school calendar, next compare with the school calendar. That will then dictate start and end times, unless parents agree to follow the original school holiday schedule, while keeping in mind the school’s ongoing remote learning requirements.
The ongoing uncertainty and change need not create uncertainty for children or their parents over parenting time schedules. Stay At Home does not also require schedule changes or, worse yet, refusing parenting time. If in doubt and not on the same page with your co-parent, reach out to your attorney or a self-help legal service provider for advice.
Since 2002, Lindsay Parvis has represented clients in Maryland custody, divorce, and marital matters. She negotiates, litigates, and advocates for the best interests of her clients, whether in contested litigation, uncontested settlement, or premarital and other agreements. Her clients are not only spouses and parents, but also children whose interests she is appointed by the court to represent in contested custody litigation. Lindsay strives to improve Maryland law in the General Assembly, volunteering her time to monitor, advocate, and educate about legislative developments in family law.