The COVID pandemic resulted in a recent child custody case from Canada, which decided between in-person class or remote, online education. The family judge in Ontario found the father in contempt for registering their daughter for in-person class, but then the order took a surprising turn.
Learning the Hard Way
In the Canadian custody case over COVID and classroom learning, the parties lived together from 2009 to 2014, and had a nine-year-old daughter. After their separation, the child timeshared between parents on a week on/week off basis. The parents shared joint custody and equal parenting time.
Importantly, their custody decree also stated that both parties had to agree to a decision concerning the child’s education, and if they disagreed, they would go through mediation before initiating litigation.
Last March, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted in-person education at schools. From July to August, the parties exchanged emails discussing what they should do about the child’s education when the elementary school reopened in September.
The father wanted the child to attend school in person and to take the school bus, while the mother objected. Despite the mother’s opposition, the father registered the child for in-person education and arranged for the child to be transported by bus during his weeks.
The mother asked the court to order their child attend school remotely from home through online learning and that the father be found liable for contempt of court due to his act of unilaterally registering the child for in-person education in violation of the order. The father in turn asked the court to order that the child attend school in person and use the school bus for transportation.
Florida COVID Custody and Class
I’ve written about the custody and education before. In Florida, shared parental responsibility is the preferred relationship between parents. In fact, courts are instructed to order parents to share parental responsibility of a child unless it would be detrimental to the child.
Issues relating to a child’s education are major decisions affecting the welfare of a child. When parents cannot agree, the dispute is resolved in court. At the trial, the test applied is the best interests of the child.
Determining the best interests of a child is based on an evaluation of statutory factors, and one equitable catch-all factor, affecting the welfare and interests of the child and the circumstances of the child’s family.
The statute authorizes one parent to have ultimate responsibility for certain decisions. For example, education is an area of ultimate responsibility a court can award. When a decision on education goes to trial, the court grants one parent ultimate responsibility to make that decision.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled that it was in the child’s best interests to attend the elementary school’s French Immersion Program in person and to be permitted to take the bus for transportation between her father’s house and the school.
“In my view, if schools are open, children should attend unless there is an unacceptable risk to either the child or a member of their household that is created by the fact the child attends the school and may contract the virus,” wrote Justice Mark Shelston for the Superior Court.
Justice Shelston considered a number of factors presented by the parties in determining the child’s best interests. For instance, a doctor’s report indicated that the child was at risk for psychosocial and school difficulties. The doctor recommended that the child have an individual educational plan that would support her needs.
Justice Shelston noted that this plan required the child’s in-person attendance so that she could work closely with the teachers. The child would also benefit from the French social and linguistic milieu provided by in-person attendance.
Though the mother alleged that members of the immediate and extended family, including the child’s grandparents, suffered from underlying chronic medical conditions – which placed them at a heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 – Shelston said that there was no medical evidence to support this allegation. Neither was there evidence that the grandparents lived with the child.
As regards the child riding the school bus, Shelston stated that there was no basis to conclude that the child would be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 when taking the bus.
Though the father was successful with regard to the school issue, the court ordered him to pay the mother’s costs associated with the motion for contempt. The father was held liable for contempt of court because he had registered the child for in-person education and had made school bus arrangements without the mother’s approval, in breach of the 2017 court order to which both parties had consented.
The Law Times News article is here.