Court Rules on Remote vs. In-Person Learning for the Children of Two Teachers
As we reported recently, this is the time of year when courts typically entertain a spate of “let’s change Johnny’s school” motions. The COVID-19 pandemic has added a new and unfortunate twist to what is already a common battleground of disagreement between separated and divorcing parents.
A slight variation on this theme was seen in a decision released recently, just as the Fall 2020 school session is set to begin. As we outlined briefly in a related Blog the case involved two parents – both of whom happened to be school teachers – who were at-odds over whether their children should attend in-class schooling (as the father wanted), or else learn remotely from home (as the mother strongly preferred).
They went before the court for an urgent ruling, with the mother asking to be granted sole decision-making authority over the issue. The children were currently 6 and 8 years old, and were slated to attend the same school to enter Grades 1 and 3, respectively.
After reviewing the facts in detail, the court ruled that – at least for these particular children – their best interests dictated that they should learn remotely/online from inside the mother’s home, for the duration of the Fall 2020 semester.
The court prefaced its conclusions with these observations:
The policy of the provincial government is that in-person school attendance is optional for the 2020-2021 school year. If parents decide their children should not return to the physical classroom, remote learning is available. This flexibility allows parents to make the best decision for their family. However, this model breaks down where parents have separated and are not like-minded about their children’s best interests. That is the case for [these children]. The result for them over the past weeks has been ambiguity and confusion about their return to school plus increased conflict between their parents on the heels of what has already been many months riddled with change and uncertainty.
There can be no doubt that the school environment offers children social, psychological, and developmental advantages. The question here is whether those benefits outweigh the physical risks of returning to that environment in the context of this two-household family?
The court took stock of all the pertinent facts relating to each of the parents and their current living situations; this included the mother’s 15-month old child with her new common-law partner, who had underlying medical conditions and was immunocompromised to the point of being off work. In the course of concluding that the balance favoured a remote learning model for these children, the court said:
… I take notice of the information widely repeated in the public domain that very young children are likely to be at higher risk due to their immature immune systems. A return to in-class learning brings increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 and, in turn, increased risk of transmitting the virus to vulnerable family members. It is a risk that I find unnecessary, for this family, at this time. [The children] are good students and are surrounded by trained educators in both households to help them, if needed. Their mother will be in the home every day at least until late January 2021 to guide and supplement their online learning. I am also satisfied that both parents are attentive to the girls’ need for social interaction, social learning, and physical exercise.
…. For these reasons, I find it is in [the children’s] best interests to attend school virtually for the 2020 fall semester and to do so from their mother’s home. The father is away from the home during the day and the other members of his household are working, either from home or away from the home.
In closing, the court added an important admonishment to the parents:
I encourage the parties to make every effort to resolve this issue quickly and focus on reducing the conflict between them, especially as the children return to their studies and grapple with the many challenges and changes the world continues to present. I also urge the parties to consider the most sensible schedule for the children in the context of all their needs and best interests. [The children] deserve nothing less.
For the full text of the decision, see:
Joachim v. Joachim, 2020 ONSC 5355