ACTUALLY written by: Stephen J. Corell, paralegal

So You Have to Decide If Your Child Will Attend School...

On March 18, 2020, Governor Cuomo signed an Executive Order that all schools in New York must shut down. As the mounting waves of the Coronavirus has begun to subside in New York, mostly thanks to such Executive Orders and a largely successful campaign of social distancing and mask policies, Governor Cuomo set a threshold for a September reopening: A 5% case load in each particular school district. As of Friday, August 7, 2020, New York met that goal--statewide. In fact, cases across New York have fallen below 1%. However, it isn’t as simple as just meeting this threshold. Each district must submit an individualized plan to the Department of Education, detailing how they will hold classes and bring students into the school in a way that is safe and practical. The Department of Education must then approve the plan.

One of the reasons the deadline for these school plans weren’t due until August--less than a month before school is supposed to begin--is because there is a personal decision involved too. Parents were supposed to make a decision by August 7 as to whether they are choosing to have their children opt out of school.

This is not an easy decision to make. At stake is a delicate balancing act between a children’s safety and their education, compounded by factors such as access to childcare, stability of household income, and the existence of immune-compromised members of the household.

If a parent sends their child back to school, they know the child is getting educated and socialized in an environment where health guidelines and safety protocols will mitigate the spread of Covid-19. However, a parent might find a similar peace of mind keeping their child at home, where they know they will not be exposed to Covid-19 at school and thus will not compromise the health of either the child or other members of the household who might have risk factors associated with Covid-19. They will also have control over the child’s education, first-hand.

Two additional factors that often go unconsidered are childcare and meal preparation. If a working parent chooses for their child to opt out, they will either need to find childcare, work from home, or figure out some alternative arrangement. Even if a stay-at-home parent chooses for their child to opt out, it isn’t quite as simple as just having the child stay home. Many stay-at-home parents rely on having time when their child is at school. Many families also financially rely on the meals provided by the schools, so opting out may become a financial decision on multiple levels, depending on a parent’s job situation which--now more than ever--is more of a consideration than it may have been before.

Another consideration is the accessibility--and effectiveness--of online learning, which many parents may have to resort to if they choose not to send their children to school. In-person learning, with its benefits to social intelligence and interactive learning, must be balanced with the risks of contracting the virus, while at-home or online learning might be able to mitigate the health concerns but would not be without their own differences to socialization and interactivity.

Along with these health concerns and financial questions, various legal issues may arise, depending on the parent’s situation. What if parents have a custody agreement for their child and must make a decision regarding their child’s education? Will parents have the ability to choose to opt out after the deadline if health factors change? How will the decision to opt out affect divorce or separation agreements that did not account for differing laws related to Covid-19? What happens if a parent chooses to send their child to school and then schools are forced to close again if Covid-19 spikes in their area?

This is a difficult decision to make for any parent, and the factors vary depending on each household. While we recommend you consult a medical professional for questions regarding the health risks to your child or family, we at the Law Firm of Aaron Gavenda can help you walk through the potential legal ramifications of education choices and family dynamics. If you are trying to plan ahead and are negotiating a custody or separation agreement with a co-parent, our office can also help you think through what you might need to include to make sure your child’s rights are protected during the uncertainty of Covid-19, especially if you make the determination to have your child opt out of school. Whatever the case, we’re here to help you and your family.

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