Susan J Williams Partner and Head of Family Department (Cardiff)
Sending my child to school… The dilemma for parents co-parenting during Covid-19
As children attend school for the autumn term, for the first time since March 2020, schools across the UK are adopting measures to try and reduce the spread of coronavirus whilst allowing the return of all children to the school environment. As School Minister for England, Nick Gibb, stated recently “schools have gone to enormous effort” over the summer to make themselves safe.
Understandably, parents are concerned at the continuing risk and exposure of the Covid-19 virus. Choosing whether or not to send your child to school can be difficult.
Separated parents have experienced first-hand how testing it has been for them to co-parent during the pandemic lockdown from March to June with trying to home school and juggle work and childcare commitments spread out between two households.
This has been made more complicated with the four nations of the United Kingdom having variations on the restrictions that they impose on their citizens.
There is no doubt that these circumstances will have brought additional strains and challenges to many families
So what happens if parents cannot agree about their child’s return to school?
During the summer term the Westminster Government stated that it was not compulsory for children to return to school. However, that attitude has now changed and it is now compulsory to attend school, with the usual attendance rules applying.
The Department of Education for England has stated that parents will be fined for non-attendance, unless there is “good reason” that they cannot attend school. Currently the fines imposed by local authorities can start at £60.00 and rise to £120 if the fine is not paid.
In Northern Ireland the guidance states that all children should return to school and should parents continually ignore the requirement for their children to attend school then as a last resort parents could also face fines.
In contrast in Wales the Welsh Education Minister has said that parents who don’t send their children to school due to concerns around Covid-19 will not face any fines, certainly in the first half of the autumn term whilst everyone readjusts to the return of children to the school environment. It is the Welsh Governments view that it would not be appropriate for a local authority or school to issue a Fixed Penalty Notice or to commence proceedings for non-attendance on the initial return to school, although this would be monitored and reviewed over the first half of the school term.
Similarly in Scotland the Scottish Education secretary said that parents would not be punished for deciding against returning children to school.
The general consensus is that there is a greater risk of harm to a child’s education and wellbeing if they don’t return to school during the current phase of the pandemic.
In England and Wales provisions have been made to enable children to attend their childcare provisions, whether that is in a day care setting, childminder or family support member so that it underpins the child’s return to school. Even in Wales where some individual local Authorities have tighter restrictions, childcare provisions can still be accessed.
The reality is that some separated parents find themselves disagreeing on whether their child should return to school in circumstances where one of them considers that there is a “good reason” not to.
Some parents may be particularly anxious for their children to return to school and their childcare provisions, especially with the virus still very much in circulation and with the continual change in the restrictions that are announced by all of the nation’s governments. At the time of writing this article the each of the four nations announced the imposition of tighter restrictions due to an increase in the number of positive Covid-19 test results. The various different rules depending on where you live and what restrictions are in place at any one time only adds to the anxiety that many parents face when weighing up whether their child should attend school or instead be home schooled.
We as family law practitioners have a duty to assist parents to consider above all the child’s overall welfare which includes their physical, emotional and educational needs.
Parents should be reminded that key decisions within a child’s life must be agreed by all those who have parental responsibility.
If one parent disagrees, the school may be reluctant to allow the child to attend. A decision like this will bring huge complications to family life.
When facing disagreements such as this one, parents will want to try and resolve matters as quickly as possible. This is understandable in light of the fact that the school term has now commenced and is well underway and particularly because their child may have already missed a great amount of school between March and the end of the summer term.
What can parents do?
As in all disputes relating to children, communication between parents is key. Parents should be encouraged to attempt to try and reach a practical solution as soon as possible.
Communicating their concerns to the school may prove helpful. For example, the Head Teacher may reassure the concerned parent about the risk assessments the school would have undertaken, the measures that have been put in place, how the new “normal” school day is operating and what the schools policy is when there is a positive Covid-19 test in the school. Where the child has health issues talking to the GP or health care provider can also be a source of reassurance.
It is often the case that with the help of a mutual third party, or both parents agreeing to attend mediation or working with other professionals, a resolution of the issues can be achieved.
In circumstances where agreement cannot be reached, and as a last resort, an application to the Court for a Specific Issue Order may become necessary. This application would be to ask for the court to weigh up all the issues put forward by each of the parents and to reach a decision on what the court considers is in the best interests of the child. This would involve a Hearing in front of a Judge which, in all likelihood will be conducted remotely by either telephone or by way of video conference. However, at the moment the Courts are still under immense pressure and many applications which would have been heard within a few weeks previously may now be delayed to many months before a Hearing can take place. The Courts are putting in measures to prioritise urgent matters and issues involving a child’s education is likely to fall under “urgent matters”, so a Court application for a Specific Issue Order may well meet the criteria of an urgent matter. A prompt issuing of an application is therefore important.
At a time when there is a great deal of anxiety and unsettling feelings within a family, the most important thing to consider is always the child’s overall welfare. The Westminster Government guidance and the Guidance from the three devolved nations at the time will also be relevant to any application that is being issued.
It is important to remind the parent who is against sending the child to school to explain how they consider their child’s educational and social needs will be satisfied whilst not at school, how being home schooled will fit in with the child arrangements already in place? Are there any underlying conditions of the child or close family members which should be taken into account. And depending on the child’s age how does the child feel about returning to school? Being away from school can bring up feelings of isolation and loneliness and this is something that needs to be considered at all times.
Weighing up what is in the best interests of your child is always a very difficult process, and understandably more difficult when the response to the pandemic is constantly changing. It is difficult for parents to know what to do for the best. Early advice from as many different sources is the best way forward, but as always when there is an impasse the courts are there to make the final decision.