Since March 2020, parents across the country have been navigating co-parenting during COVID-19, as parenting challenges unseen in the modern era have forced thousands of co-parents to court on an emergency basis.
What happens when parents have different views on the precautions associated with Coronavirus? Should a parenting time schedule be adjusted if one parent is a frontline worker? What happens if one parent is immunocompromised – should they forfeit their parenting time? These are just a few questions co-parents and divorcing parents are currently facing.
While it is impossible to plan for every unknown in life, having a foundation in your shared parenting agreement now to address how you and your co-parent will handle unprecedented events, such as a pandemic, can help you avoid a heated custody battle in court when such events transpire.
Related: Shared Parenting Agreement Worksheet
The following is a list of terms to consider adding to your parenting agreement to address the unique co-parenting challenges during a pandemic.
PRO TIP: While these terms and examples provided mainly pertain to COVID-19, such a plan can also be easily translated to other unexpected events, like a natural disaster.
1.Know the Risk Factors and Obstacles to Parenting Time
Understanding the risk factors in both households is paramount to creating an effective plan for co-parenting during COVID-19.
Does one parent work in the COVID ward at the hospital and should self-quarantine after long shifts? Maybe another parent’s elderly mother lives in the household and is at high risk for contracting COVID. Are either of you remarried and have step-children who also travel between two households? Is a significant amount of travel required for parenting time to occur, such as by plane?
Make a list of all the risk factors and impediments to parenting time (such as travel or occupation) so you can have a transparent conversation with your co-parent about terms to add to your parenting agreement in light of COVID-19.
TRY IT: Wyatt and Mary are divorced and have two children they share custody of. Wyatt has a respiratory condition that puts him at high risk for developing complications from COVID-19. Mary works as a nurse at a local hospital but does not work in the COVID unit. The risk factors here include Mary’s occupation and Wyatt’s respiratory condition. Wyatt and Mary should determine whether the risk to John’s health is high enough that extraordinary precautions or a modification to parenting time should be put in place.
2. Set Shared Guidelines for Hygiene and Activities
Under normal circumstances, what happens at one parent’s house is that parent’s business. Considering the ease at which COVID-19 is transmitted, getting on the same page as your co-parent regarding hygiene and activities for the children is of utmost importance to reduce the risk of spreading the virus between households.
And what about your children? Imagine how confusing it would be if at Mom’s house they are not allowed to play with friends or go to the park, but at Dad’s house, they can have multiple friends over to play video games inside.
Having consistent guidelines is key for ensuring the transition between households is as safe as possible. Creating a set of shared household guidelines for hygiene, activities the children can participate in, and even a reduction of the number of items traveling between households can help prevent a disruption in parenting time
TRY IT: In both households, the children will wash their hands frequently and hand sanitizer will be available. Inside play dates will not be allowed, but the children can play outside with one friend so long as social distance guidelines are followed. Each parent will ensure that the children have all necessary belongings (such as clothing, toothbrushes, etc.) so personal items do not need to travel between households.
3. Clearly Define Modifications That Should be Made for Remote Learning and Changes to School Breaks
With the majority of the students nationwide are currently in fully remote or hybrid-remote learning, there is no longer a clear-cut “school day” or even a school year. The ambiguity that exists around the school during COVID-19 can translate to major headaches for parents who have not defined what they will do during remote learning.
If one parent has the ability to work remotely, is a temporary modification of parenting time may be warranted to allow that parent to assist the children with the remote school during the day? If both parents work outside their homes, will a family member be able to step in to assist? If the school year is extended, will that affect summer parenting time?
Planning for the what-ifs surrounding school during COVID-19 will give you some peace of mind during this tumultuous time.
TRY IT: Should the children’s school move to remote or hybrid-remote learning, the children shall stay at Mother’s house during the school week as she is able to work remotely. If and when school resumes normally, so shall the regular parenting time schedule. If the school year is extended into summer break, the regular school year schedule will continue to apply until the summer break begins.
4. Decide When Your Normal Parenting Time Schedule is No Longer Safe
With different levels of risk throughout the nation, throughout states, and even in individual communities and familial systems, it is very important to get on the same page with your co-parent about what point you consider it no longer safe to operate under your normal parenting time schedule.
Should parenting time be adjusted based on the risk level in your community? Or should it be modified right away if one parent has a high-risk job?
Using the list you created in response to Tip Number 1 above, create the framework for when your normal parenting time schedule should be adjusted to reduce the risk of COVID-19 for your children and your households.
TRY IT: When the local COVID-19 risk in our county/state moves into the Red Level phase, we will temporarily adjust our normal parenting time schedule to ensure the safest environment possible for our children and our individual households.
5. Create an Alternate Parenting Time Schedule and be Clear About When the Normal Schedule Will Resume
Now that you and your co-parent have determined when it is no longer safe to continue with your normal parenting time schedule, your next step is to create an alternate parenting time schedule. This may be a difficult process, as no parent wants to give up their time with their children. However, understanding that this will be a temporary schedule may help alleviate the fear and apprehension involved.
Does either parent have the ability to work from home? Is one household at higher risk than the other? Should the normal schedule resume when the local risk level is low?
Considering again your list of risk factors, work schedules, whether one parent has the ability to work remotely, and any other relevant factors, you and your co-parent should devise a temporary schedule that works – as best as possible – for the children and both households. You and your co-parent should include a clear timeframe for when the normal parenting time schedule should resume. Having a clear end date for the alternate parenting time schedule will ensure that everyone (especially the parent whose parenting time may be temporarily reduced) will know that the plan is indeed only temporary.
TRY IT: While the local COVID-19 risk in our county/state is the Red Level phase or higher, Mother will have 100% of the physical parenting time with the children as her job is remote allowing her to care for the children and assist with their remote school. At such a time as the local COVID-19 risk in our county/state drops below the Red Level phase, the normal parenting time schedule will immediately resume.
6. Guarantee Virtual and Make-up Parenting Time
No parent wants to give up their parenting time with their child, even if only temporarily; however, due to COVID-19, that may be an unfortunate reality many parents will face in the coming weeks and months. Such an arrangement is hard on parents but equally difficult for children who are used to seeing both parents in person on a regular basis.
How will the children stay connected to both parents? Are there any activities that the children and parents can do remotely? Should there be make-up parenting time?
While nothing can replace physical connection, maintaining regular contact between parent and child is instrumental in maintaining a sense of normalcy during unprecedented times. Consider including built-in, regularly occurring virtual parenting time opportunities in your COVID-19 shared parenting agreement. Virtual parenting time, via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime or any number of virtual meetup apps can help parents and children continue to engage and connect with each other. Some ideas for virtual activities for parents and children include:
- Homework help session
- Playing an online game, such as Minecraft
- Playing a virtual board game
Further, including a plan for “make-up” parenting time can help ease the burden of the parent who has to temporarily suspend in-person parenting time. Make-up parenting time could be added to summer break, for instance, or even by adding an extra overnight during the week once the normal parenting time schedule resumes.
TRY IT: During the alternate parenting time schedule for COVID-19 wherein the children will stay 100% of the time at Mother’s home, Father shall have Skype visits with the children on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 7:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. and on Sundays from 2:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Any in-person parenting time Father shall miss due to the alternate parenting time schedule shall be added to Father’s 2021 summer parenting time block (assuming the normal parenting time schedule has resumed by that time).
7. Have a Plan of Action if Someone Gets Sick
Now that you have created your alternate shared parenting schedule for COVID-19, it is time to think about what will happen if the children, either parent or a member of either household contract the virus.
If your child tests positive for COVID-19, will they recover and quarantine in the household of the parent they were with when they tested positive? If someone in the household (not your children) tests positive, should the children automatically be tested? If someone in the household is exposed to the virus, should the children be quarantined for 14-days?
Even if your parenting time schedule will not change during COVID-19, it is important to have a plan in place ahead of time – determining this framework now will help you be able to devote your time and energy to your loved ones in the unfortunate event the children or anyone in your household tests positive for COVID-19.
TRY IT: Should either child test positive for COVID-19, they will quarantine for 14 days, or until they have a negative test result on retesting, at the house of the parent they were with when they tested positive. All members of that household shall also self-quarantine for 14 days. If either parent or a member of their household tests positive for COVID-19, the children will not visit that household for at least 14 days, or until all members of the household test negative for COVID-19.
8. Clearly Define Who Will Make Decisions for the Children
If you and your co-parent share decision-making responsibility for your children, it will be extremely important that you define how decisions will be made for the children in the event that one of you is hospitalized with COVID-19 and cannot participate in the decision-making process.
Should you reduce the response time needed when making decisions (i.e. each parent has 24 hours to respond to a request for an agreement on a decision) to account for quick decisions that need to be made related to COVID-19? If one parent is hospitalized due to the virus, should you add a provision that one parent has temporary sole decision-making authority for the children? For all decisions, or just certain time-sensitive decisions, such as medical issues?
Regardless of what you and your co-parent choose to do, having a plan in place now can save you a significant amount of stress down the road.
TRY IT: Should either parent be hospitalized due to COVID-19 and unable to participate in the decision-making process related to medical decisions for the children (due to the use of a ventilator, being in a comatose state, etc.) the other parent shall be granted temporary sole decision-making authority regarding medical decisions for the children. The parent making the decision must still provide notice to the other parent of any decision made. Temporary sole decision-making authority shall be revoked upon the release of the hospitalized parent from the hospital.
9. Have a Contingency Plan if Both Parents Fall Ill
While it is never fun to think about worst-case scenarios, advanced planning is key to ensuring the children are cared for in the event that both parents are hospitalized due to COVID-19 at the same time.
Will grandparents be available to care for the kids? Or perhaps an aunt or uncle? Will the parenting schedule resume when one or both parents gets better?
Knowing who can step in as a temporary guardian of the children will help avoid confusion and panic during a very difficult time.
TRY IT: In the rare event that both parents are unable to care for the children due to COVID-19, the paternal grandparents will care for the children until such a time that one or both parents is able to care for the children again.
10. Have a Plan if You and Your Co-Parent Don’t Agree on COVID-19 Related Decisions
If you and your co-parent work well together, you should be able to agree on most of the provisions you should consider adding to your shared parenting agreement in light of COVID-19. That’s not always going to be the case, however. Particularly if tensions still run high or your divorce is still quite fresh.
What happens if you and your co-parent cannot agree?
In these instances, having the help of a neutral third-party mediator can make all the difference. Having a provision in your shared parenting agreement regarding mediation (like the in-house mediator offered here at Hello Divorce) will help you work through your differences and hopefully come to agreements on those issues that you and your co-parent cannot agree on. Sometimes it is as simple as each of you needs your side to be understood and heard.
TRY IT: In the event we cannot agree on a decision related to an alternative parenting time schedule to address COVID-19 concerns, or any other decision that must be made regarding the children as COVID-19 develops, we agree to schedule a two-hour virtual mediation session to attempt to come to an agreement regarding any issues in dispute.
- BONUS: Be Understanding, Transparent and Flexible
No one is immune to the stress and hardship created by the current pandemic, and no one is feeling that stress more than parents. Keep in mind, your feelings of overwhelm, exhaustion and fear are most likely being felt by your co-parent, too.
When speaking with your co-parent about COVID-19, be understanding. Try to see where they are coming from. Everyone handles the stress of a pandemic differently, so approaching these issues with a sense of kindness and compassion (as hard as it may be) can only serve to help all involved.
Further, it is extremely important to be transparent and flexible during these times. You and your co-parent are navigating uncharted territory and there will inevitably be bumps in the road along the way. Be open, honest, and transparent about your concerns and what is going on in your household (such as someone being exposed to the virus). This will allow you and your co-parent to make informed decisions.
Remember, this is only temporary, and with some advanced planning, transparency, and flexibility, you and your co-parent will be well equipped to navigate co-parenting during COVID-19 and beyond.
If you aren’t ready to move off of this topic, check out some of our other posts tackling Covid-19 and its impact on divorce:
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