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In-Person Versus Remote Education: What Co-Parents Need to Know

Katie Flowers Samler, Aimee Pingenot Key | July 29, 2020

GoransonBain Ausley Dallas partners Aimee Pingenot Key and Katie Samler sit down for a four-part series to discuss all of your burning questions relating to family law and divorce during the Covid-19 pandemic. Aimee and Katie are family law attorneys seeking to guide clients through family law matters, but now also helping to navigate that process with the effects of Coronavirus.

In this segment of Family Law Advisor Video Podcast, the conversation dives into co-parenting when making decisions on school choice for the fall and putting the child’s needs first despite any issues that may arise in the process. Specifically, topics of discussion include parent’s individual rights to making education decisions, citing your latest decree when problem solving, and advice on how to manage an impasse in the decision-making process. Tune back in for more episodes with Katie and Aimee as they make sense of the family law practice as it exists in this pandemic.

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Katie: Hi, I’m Katie Samler, and I’m here today with my law partner, Aimee Pingenot Key. We are both partners at Goranson Bain Ausley, and we are both board-certified in family law. We are here today for this episode of “Family Law Advisor” to talk about family law and divorce during these very uncertain times and have candid conversations about how we can help each other, and we can help our clients, and we can provide guidance to you and your families during this challenging time.

Aimee: As moms ourselves, Katie and I understand that many of these challenges that everyone is facing are new and complex, and there is no easy answer. We hope by bringing together some experts to help both our clients and ourselves that we all might have a better toolbox to be able to navigate this uncertainty during these very strange times.

Katie: One question that we are receiving a lot today is how do parents make the very difficult decision whether to send their children to in-person school versus virtual learning? And which parent has the right to make that decision if the parents disagree? So, Aimee, I have had lots of calls about this, and I’m sure you have too. I think of the most straightforward, the rights and duties, the place that our clients can look is in the rights and duties section of their most recent order to determine who has the right, first and foremost, to make educational decisions. I think if one parent has that exclusive right, that’s pretty clear-cut that they get to make the decision regarding virtual learning versus in-person learning, but what do you do when you see parents that have the independent right to make educational decisions regarding their children? How… Have you seen that and what are you advising your clients to do?

Aimee: And that situation where each parent independently has the right to decide if kids go to school in-person or go to school virtually, I’ve talked to my clients about looking further in the decree itself, to look to medical, and psychological, psychiatric decision-making rights to see if there is a tiebreaker, and also looking in that educational decision-making rights section to see if there is any guidance on where the child specifically goes to school because different school districts might or might not even have virtual learning in that case. Those are some of the additional areas that we’ve looked at within the rights and duties section, and you can also look in the decree itself to see if there are other areas that might address how to problem-solve where two parents just find themselves at an impasse. I know I’ve looked to see if there is a parenting coordinator, or parenting facilitator, or a counselor that’s been appointed for the child to help parents discuss these difficult issues. Have you found other areas in the orders, Katie, where you’ve looked too to see if you can get some guidance or direction?

Katie: So, other areas of the order that I’ve looked for are whether there’s a tiebreaker appointed for parents that have the right to make educational decisions by agreement. If there is a tiebreaker, we’ll call that tiebreaker and get them involved. Sometimes that’s a pediatrician, or some psychologist, or other professional. Sometimes there is a mediation clause, and if we do that, we want to try to get mediation scheduled quickly because mediators are booking quickly. We try to also talk through…if there’s none of those provisions in the order we talk through different options to informally resolve this with the other parent. I don’t know about you, Aimee, but I’m seeing it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to get a hearing right now because everyone is having these similar issues, in addition to the courts’ already busy dockets, and so helping guide our clients to resolve this out of court with the other parent and giving them tools to resolve this in a way that puts the child first, and in a way that they can reach a resolution out of court without having to spend big legal fees going to court, and the ability to have a little bit more control over their decision. What kinds of things are you helping guide your clients or considerations you’re advising them to take into account when they’re talking to their co-parent and trying to make this decision with their co-parent about making the decision of in-person versus distance virtual learning?

Aimee: Some of the things that I’ve done to help my clients have that discussion with their co-parent, which I think is an absolutely essential first step, is to make a list of some of the reasons for their decision and some of the reasons or concerns that they have about the other parent’s decision as well. I think if this can be done in a productive manner, it helps everyone evaluate the situation and perhaps come up with options or ideas that had not been considered. Some of the things that I’ve asked my clients to look at are the ability of either parent to be able to stay home with the child and provide virtual learning even for a semester or a quarter of the year. Do the parents have the ability to do this? And do they have…does their job offer them the flexibility to be able to provide that necessary education? I’ve also asked them is there another resource in the home like a grandparent, or a tutor, or someone that both parties would trust if they were to do in-person learning to be able to help their child? And some of those are just creative brainstorming options that parents can come up with that might make a decision a little bit easier. Katie, what are some of the other things that you’ve looked at to try to help give parents some guidance or some tools to be able to consider when making this decision?

Katie: I mean, I think this is a multi-faceted evaluation because I think they’re going to have to if they determine that they’re going to send the kids to school in-person, they have to evaluate what’s going to happen if the school closes and how homeschool will be handled. And so, if the parents start off in a conflict, and this is all a big fight to get to in-person school, and they end up deciding in-person school, and then there’s no plan in place on what happens if school gets canceled, we’re back where we started. So, if parents as hard as it is can put their differences aside and come together, and put their children’s best interest at heart, and really look to the resources and tools that they have to make this really hard decision, I think that that’s going to benefit not only their co-parenting relationship but benefit and help their child during this very strange and uncertain time. When they see stability from their parents and consistency, and that their parents are on the same page, I think that that’s a positive benefit for the child.

What happens if parents just can’t make the decision? And what are their options? I mean, what happens if there is a court order and one parent refuses to comply with the court order? What do we do? What would you advise a client in that circumstance?

Aimee: One of the very first things that I would advise that client to do is to reach out to their family law attorney or find one to help guide them and figure out what solution and what direction is appropriate for them. Part of the reason that talking to a family law attorney is so important is that we often have a sense of how different counties and different courts are handling these problems. If we would be able to file a modification or file for a restraining order if there is a health risk for going to school, just evaluating your legal options to give that client some direction and perspective. I also think too that being able to talk to the client and help strategize if this is going to be a modification case or if we do need to take legal action, how their communication, and actions, and problem-solving is going to be viewed by the court in the big picture, it’s really important to work with someone from the beginning to get that strategy and to make sure that all the steps that are being taken help that parent and ultimately that child into the best light and best direction possible to be able to reach an answer. And the one thing I can say, even for my own family, there are no perfect decisions right now. I think judges, and mediators, and attorneys, and clients, we’re all doing the best that we can trying to make sense of a situation that isn’t anything any of us have experienced. And so, we’ve got to work together to try to come up with a solution that is best given these circumstances that we find ourselves in.

Katie: Thank you, all, for your time today and for listening in. We are here for you if you have any questions. You are always welcome to call us at our offices, and we will do our best to address those questions. We want to remind you that this is uncharted territory for everyone. This is uncharted territory for you, for your co-parent, for your children, for your attorneys, or judges, and we’re all in this together. And if you can just continue to remind yourself that your children’s best interest is first, that’s a wonderful starting point for this very difficult decision and very difficult discussion. We are going to continue this conversation in our series regarding the educational decision-making for virtual learning versus in-person learning, and we’re going to be speaking with some other professionals who can, hopefully, provide different insights and perspectives to help guide you in putting your children’s best interest at the forefront.

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