How should parents handle visitation during a pandemic? This is new territory not only for parents, but also for Courts. The Courts have given us some guidelines.
First, the Courts have released Orders which state that parents should treat visitation plans the same as if the children were actually attending school each day and not like it is spring break or summer vacation already. This remains true until the last day of school as published by the school district at the beginning of the year. The parties should follow their normal summer possession schedule once school is dismissed according to the originally published school calendar for the summer break.
If a parent has Thursday night visitation during school, they have Thursday night visitation during the distance learning until the last day of school. Likewise, if a parent has a school or Federal holiday lumped in with their weekend possession they still do. Furthermore, if a parent’s possession time begins at the time school is regularly dismissed on a day and/or the parent normally returns the child to school when it resumes at the end of possession the parent still may still pick up the child at normal school dismissal times and return the child to the child’s house at the normal return times. If the pick-up and delivery is at school the parents may still want to make the exchange at the school parking lot or they may opt to have the exchanges occur at a residence. Often this depends on the safety of the parties involved.
Second, parents have a duty to each other to notify the other if a child or parent has been exposed to or diagnosed with the COVID -19 virus. The Courts tell us that if there has been a known exposure or diagnosis of the COVID-19 virus that the parents “shall confer to discuss actions necessary to protect the child’s safety and welfare, subject to the restrictions set forth in any municipal, county, or state emergency order.” It is important to note that this does not mean that a parent is concerned that a parent may have exposed the child to the virus or other people that could have the virus, but that a parent has reason to believe the child has been exposed to the virus. Likewise, it does not mean that a parent who works from home may keep a child from visiting a parent who works outside the home as an essential activity just because the parent believes it is an unnecessary risk. Remember, the Courts have already determined that visitation with a child is an essential activity. What the Court means is that the parent actually knows that a child has come into contact with someone that has the COVID-19 virus or the child has been diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus.
In these instances, the parents are under a duty to confer with the other parent and are to act in the child’s best interest, not he parent’s best interest as is necessary to protect the child’s safety and welfare. The Orders further state that the parents’ actions are subject to the restrictions set forth in any municipal, county or state emergency order. This means that parents had better be following all of the emergency orders for their residence. If the residence has a shelter-in-place order that requires not coming in close contact with members of another household, then the parent needs to make sure that a child doesn’t come in close contact with members of other households. If a shelter-in-place order requires face masks and social distancing then the parent needs to take extra precaution to make sure that these measures are followed. If an emergency order provides for quarantining after a known exposure or diagnosis with COVID-19 then the parents need to quarantine. Parents need to follow all emergency orders.
Third, parents may modify a possession order by agreement. The Courts are reminding parents that, by agreement, parents may always modify a possession order. This may make sense during certain situations or to help share the responsibility of home learning and childcare while working during this time. Parents really should use this time to learn to co-parent with the other parent where and when possible. If you reach an agreement it should be in writing to avoid the other parent from saying there never was an agreement.
Lastly, what do you do if the other parent is unnecessarily exposing a child to COVID-19 and that child has a known underlying health risk? The Courts are hearing cases on a case by case basis for those that are acting improper during this pandemic. Parents that have a specific concern about the actions of the other parent during visitation should seek the assistance of a knowledgeable child custody attorney. We can evaluate your case and determine if you should seek assistance form the court to keep your child safe.