Managing Parenting Time During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Co-parenting, even at the best of times, is a challenge. Keeping your family healthy—mentally, emotionally, and physically—during a pandemic is a new and unfamiliar challenge. Trying to do all of this at once piles additional stress onto an already stressful situation.

The coronavirus pandemic compounds the difficulties of raising a child in two separate households. It’s one thing if you and your co-parent have different philosophies about screen time or whether cold pizza is an acceptable breakfast food. In ordinary times, it is easier to say, “My house, my rules.”

But what happens if your co-parent’s disdain for social distancing means your child could be exposed to COVID-19? Or what if your co-parent is an essential worker whose contact with the public unwittingly exposes your child to the virus? What if your child then needs to return to your home, where you are caring for a medically vulnerable child or older person? Are there circumstances under which it is appropriate to refuse to follow your parenting time order? And if you are a parent whose co-parent refuses to make your child available for parenting time, do you have any recourse?

Things are evolving rapidly both with the spread of the coronavirus and people’s behavior in response to it. Let’s talk about what courts and professionals have to say about co-parenting during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Coronavirus Choice Facing Separated Parents

For many, the bottom line is a stark choice: do you risk putting your child’s health at risk or do you risk the consequences of violating a court order? Of course, nothing is more important than keeping  your child safe- but violating a court order is a very serious matter, and if you are doing so in the name of your child’s safety, you should be certain that your actions are necessary to protect your child. “Necessary” is not always as cut and dry as it seems.

Remember that when Ohio courts consider matters relating to parenting time, their standard is the best interests of the child. They will not look kindly on a parent’s one-sided decision to change parenting time unless it is very clear that doing so was absolutely necessary to protect the child. Remember that issues which appear very clearly to you may not be viewed the same way or be greatly impacted by your prior relationship with your co-parent and your interactions with the courts.

If your co-parent has been diagnosed with COVID-19 or is exhibiting symptoms that strongly suggest infection, you might have a stronger case for suspending parenting time than if you simply fear infection.

The reality is that most of us are feeling more anxious than usual these days. That’s understandable! But remember that anxiety can cloud your judgment. Before you make any decision to limit your co-parent’s time with your child, you should contact your family law attorney to get our objective perspective and advice. There may be aspects of the problem you have not considered or options you haven’t explored. We can also advise you about the position of the local court regarding this issue.

Guidance From Ohio Courts Regarding Coronavirus and Parenting Time

Some local courts have issued statements about how co-parents should approach parenting time during the pandemic, and specifically spring break.

The Summit County Domestic Relations Court has spoken directly to the question of whether the “three-week spring break” mentioned in the media is “spring break” for the purposes of parenting time. It is not. Spring break parenting time remains as defined as if school were still in session. A parent who is supposed to have spring break is not entitled to three weeks of extended parenting time instead of the previously scheduled one.

Instead, the court considers the extended coronavirus break as an emergency school closure in the nature of a tornado or hurricane. Parents are encouraged to work together during the closure and to accommodate each other as much as possible, especially given that work schedules may be changed and additional child care might be needed. If your prior parenting time order does not specifically address emergencies such as this one (and many don’t, as pandemics are not exactly common in today’s day and age), call us. We can help.

One of the few good things about this pandemic is that there are more hours available with your child. This opens the door for both you and your co-parent to enjoy extra time with your children (and for them to benefit from time with each of you). So, unless illness or some other logistical obstacle prevents it, sharing this extra parenting time will be good for you and your co-parent.

Let’s be candid: it will also be good for your child. Your children may be struggling with being stuck inside the four walls of your home, and will welcome a change of pace and routine. If you can give them the opportunity to have some different experiences in their other parent’s home, it may reduce their stress and irritability, not to mention give you a break. Your children may also be getting tired being around each other all of the time—it might give everyone a break to have one-on-one time now and again.

It’s likely that your children have school work to complete during this time of isolation. Unless they are older teens, it’s also likely that they will need a parent’s help. This burden should not fall on only one parent’s shoulders- even if that parent is the typical “school week” parent. Your child deserves the help of both parents, and neither you nor your co-parent should have sole responsibility for furthering your child’s education at this time.

If you and your co-parent cannot work together to resolve parenting time issues and your parenting plan doesn’t provide guidance, the court suggests defaulting to your school-year schedule: the parent who would ordinarily be dropping the child off at school in the morning would provide child care for the day, until the time that the other parent would ordinarily be picking the child up after school.

The Stark County Family Court’s statement reminds parents that the Ohio Director of Health’s stay-at-home order specifically authorizes transportation of children pursuant to a companionship order. In other words, the fact that a stay-at-home order is in place is not an excuse to avoid taking your child to their other parent for scheduled parenting time.

What if scheduled parenting time is supposed to take place not across town, but across state lines? Depending on the type and distance of travel involved, it may make sense to offer make-up parenting time during the summer or at another time, especially if airline travel is required. Again, this should not be a one-sided decision. Try to work things out with your co-parent if possible, and consult with us before doing something other than what your parenting time order directs. Agreed orders can and should be drafted and submitted to the court to change visitation orders, even if for interim periods.

Our advice to parents remains: follow your order, be kind and considerate, and think of your child first. If it should become necessary to limit or change parenting time due to the pandemic, do everything possible to encourage contact between your child and your co-parent, whether that means regular scheduled FaceTime or Skype visits, daily phone calls, or some other creative option for staying connected. If you have any questions about co-parenting during the coronavirus pandemic, or if your co-parent is refusing you parenting time, we invite you to contact our law office. We are available to help you through this crisis, and beyond.