Back to School 2021: What Divorced Parents Need to Know
With the first day of school now just a few weeks away, it’s time to get your school year co-parenting game plan together. This can mean deciding who buys the school supplies and back-to-school clothes, but with the Delta variant still surging, divorced co-parents must also grapple with extra layers of Covid-related prep this fall. Are you and your child’s co-parent pandemic-ready for the 2021 school year?
Here’s what you need to know.
Covid vaccines for school-age children
Have you and your co-parent come to a decision about whether or not your child should receive a Covid vaccine? The jab is available for children over the age of 12. At this time, getting vaccinated is a health recommendation for school, but not mandated. If you have joint legal custody, decisions around health care decisions such as vaccinations generally require consultation and agreement of both parents. Are you and your ex on the same page with vaccines — or are you on opposite sides? When parents can’t agree, having a judge decide may be needed. [Read more: What happens when divorced parents disagree about their children getting the Covid-19 vaccine?]
Getting co-parenting schedules back on track
According to the New Jersey Department of Education, all students will be back for full-time, in-person instruction for the 2021-2022 school year; last year’s remote learning options (Zoom class, etc.) will be unavailable. Fall sports and other after school activities are also back.
What does this mean for your parenting time schedule? If you had to switch to an “emergency Covid schedule” last year to accommodate at-home learning and/or limited extra-curricular activities, it’s time to go back to your “regular school year schedule” from before the pandemic.
If you are uncertain about which parenting time schedule you should be following, or if changes to your child’s schedule (or your own) necessitate further adjustments, it’s a good idea to check in with your attorney. Whenever any changes are made to parenting schedules, including adjustments to the days of the week when you have your children, or adjustments in the numbers of hours, be sure to get these changes in writing. If you and your ex have disagreements about what your 2021-22 school year co-parenting schedule should look like, you may benefit from mediation to work through your differences. In some cases, it may be necessary to go to court.
Important co-parenting note: Embracing a new parenting time schedule isn’t just an adjustment for parents. Your child may have grown accustomed to remote learning and/or spending more time at home with one or the both of you. Going back to “the way things were” may not be easy, so be prepared for possible bumps in the road. Going from at-home learning and social distancing to a full day of school, hours of sports practice and then homework, will be overwhelming for some kids.
So, be prepared that the child you pick up from school may be tired and cranky and not really feel like doing homework. Should this situation arise, work with your co-parent to figure out a solution to help your child through this adjustment period. For example, could you arrange your schedule so that on school nights when you have your child, you both go to bed early and then wake up rested and get homework done in the morning?
Masks are a must at school — for kids and parents
Another hot topic of debate for parents: should kids wear masks in schools? In New Jersey, the answer is clear: All students, educators, staff, and visitors will be required to wear face masks indoors for the start of the 2021-2022 school year. This applies to indoor premises of all public, private, and parochial preschool, elementary, and secondary school buildings with limited exceptions (i.e., when a child is engaged in aerobic activity in gym class, eating or drinking, or playing a musical instrument).
What does this mean for co-parents? Don’t throw out last year’s stash of masks just yet. The mask policy will be re-evaluated as conditions change, but for now, make sure your child has at least two-three masks with them daily and knows to swap them out if one becomes damp or wet. Also, don’t forget that you’ll need a mask, too, whenever you enter your child’s school building.
Sports and other extracurricular activities are back — who pays?
With sports programs and other extracurricular activities back up and running, your child may be eager to participate in a new sport or activity after a year of not much to do. For divorced parents, this can result in questions about who pays for things like equipment, program and private coach fees, transportation and related expenses.
The first place to look for answers is your child support order. The New Jersey Child Support Guidelines address extracurricular activities for children, such as music lessons, travel expenses for tournaments or sports uniforms, under the category of “Entertainment.” Is this amount sufficient to cover the costs of your child’s extracurricular activities?
If not, there are options for cost-sharing. You and your ex may decide to informally negotiate a solution for how to cover extracurricular expenses. If you go this route, get it in writing and have your attorney review before signing off. In cases where divorced parents disagree about extracurricular expenses, the parent who wishes the child to participate in a certain activity has the option of going to court to obtain an order for the other parent to help shoulder the costs.
The courts will look at different factors when deciding these requests, including each parent’s ability to pay as well as how talented the child is in a particular activity. For example, in one recent case, the court ordered a father to pay a limited sum of additional funds above and beyond basic guideline-level child support to help pay for his teenage daughter’s acting-related expenses. Their daughter had demonstrated a special gift for acting and the judge found that it was fair for both parents to contribute a small and reasonable annual supplemental amount to help fund her lessons, classes and travel for auditions. [Read more about how to fund extracurricular activities outside normal child support amounts.]
Your child is turning 18 this school year — what does this mean for child support?
If your teen will soon celebrate the milestone birthday of turning 18 years old, you may wonder how this impacts child support payments, since legally, your child will become an adult. Will child support continue or be terminated? A few years back (in 2017), New Jersey updated rules around child support to clarify that turning 18 does not automatically mean a child’s need for support is over. Many young adults are still seniors in high school and living at home when they turn 18 years old, for example.
According to New Jersey’s revised law, child support is now presumed to automatically terminate at age 19 unless it can be shown that the child meets certain criteria, such as attending school full-time or the child has a medical or mental health issue. A few months prior to the child’s 19th birthday, the parent receiving support is mailed a notice of support termination. It is up to that parent to show the courts the reason why support is still needed. If the conditions are not met or the parent does not respond to the notice, support can be terminated. Find out more about this process: Is Your Child’s Support Coming To An End?]
Do your (co-parenting) homework
If there is anything divorced parents have learned over the past 18 months it’s to stay flexible. In the event schools require remote learning days, if your own work schedule changes, or if any other sudden changes occur — related to the pandemic or not — be prepared for the possibility of custody curveballs. It’s a good idea for you and your child’s co-parent to discuss an emergency plan now to accommodate for unexpected changes. Consider it your own co-parenting homework assignment to prep for a successful school year.
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