One of the most notable changes during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic was seen in how schools of all sorts- elementary, secondary, and colleges alike-handled in-person classes. If you went from one corner of the country to the other, you would be sure to notice stark differences in how various localities handled things. Areas in the northeastern United States and places along the Pacific Coast were much more hesitant to allow for in-person schooling. Eventually, almost every area in the country began to allow for in-person schooling in various forms depending upon the wishes of parents, teachers, and administrators. 

Remote learning became the norm for students across the country in 2020 and even into 2021. I hope that as we proceed out of the pandemic sooner rather than later (fingers crossed) it does not become necessary into the future. Or, if remote learning benefited any students that it become an option for those students while most kids and adults alike can take advantage of in-person learning. Where does that leave us, then, as we look back on that period? Is remote learning going to become more the norm in the coming years or should be expected to be able to return to a regular schedule of in-person schooling?

Whatever the case may be I think that parents need to be aware of how it can impact their lives and those of their children. It may be that certain areas, school districts, and environments favor remote learning during flu season, for example, as we move out of a pandemic time. This is speculation but I wouldn’t rule anything out at this stage. For your parents who have been through difficult family law cases, the last thing you want is to be caught by surprise. That is why I want to write about this subject today. Remote learning wasn’t just a subject too distant to matter- something on television but not relevant to most Americans. It became the single most relevant story of the pandemic- other than the virus itself. 

How remote learning figures impact the world of child custody is anybody’s guess. On the one hand, you could argue that the most widespread use of remote learning is already behind us. We can hope that because of better treatment options, vaccines, and more knowledge about the virus now than we possessed in 2020 that remote learning will not be as necessary. That our children can be together in the classroom each school day rather than meeting over their computer screens- if at all.

Or we may see parent and school district fears over the virus or any condition for that matter weaken the bond between students and their classroom. It could be that parents embrace remote learning to keep their kids safe and lessen the need for transportation costs and time expenditure. While remote learning takes sacrifices from parents in other areas, remote learning is also a way for children to be able to grow in their ability to react positively to stressors and to do better in the face of challenges. 

This blog post from the Law Office of Bryan Fagan will look at remote learning. What it is, how it functions, and what role it stands to play in the world of child custody. If remote learning becomes more widespread then it is something that will need to be incorporated into child custody orders. This blog post will contain my thoughts on how to structure visitation, possession, and custody orders for your family if we begin to see remote learning become more the rule than it is the exception. 

What is remote learning?

Remote learning occurs when schools determine that classroom learning will occur using a means other than via in-person instruction. In the old days, as recently as thirty years ago, remote learning was not possible given our limitations in technology. However, the advent, proliferation, and improvements on the internet have led to the widespread adoption of remote learning. Whether it is due to bad weather or a global pandemic, remote learning is something that has been embraced by people across the globe. Why wouldn’t it be? Students and teachers alike can attend instruction that day in their pajamas from their living rooms. Isn’t this better than having to spend time and money traveling to a school building to attend in-person classes?

One of the first hurdles that schools had to clear in the buildup to remote learning’s widespread adoption in the Spring of 2020 was the implementation of the technology necessary to cause remote learning to function on a widespread level. While it is easy enough to think about remote learning in the abstract, the difficulty of remote practically speaking is that it takes a lot of coordination, technological dedication, and digital assistance to pull of the mass usage of remote learning. The school districts that most of our children attend are designed to allow for children to learn in person rather than over a computer screen. That is where the IT departments of these school districts earned their keep- could they successfully maintain the digital infrastructure that newly adopted methods of instruction like remote learning suddenly demanded?

Challenges associated with remote learning

Probably one of the first challenges that schools saw in the wake of the move towards remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic was associated with ensuring that students had access to their teachers. The internet is as ubiquitous with everyday life as anything that we encounter. To have the internet may as well be having running water in 2022. Everyone has the internet at home, right? What many school administrators learned rather quickly in 2020 was that everyone did not have access to the internet at home. Students were not logging into their classrooms each day at the scheduled times. Despite detailed instructions on how to access remote learning classes as provided by the schools, remote learning proved to be more difficult to manage for many students and parents than most initially believed. 

I can vividly remember reading a newspaper headline regarding students in the Los Angeles (CA) Unified School District regarding online learning. Upwards of 40% of students (give or take a percentage here or there) did not log into classroom activities online from the time that remote schooling began in Spring 2020 until the school year ended for summer vacation. That statistic floored me. Imagine 35 or 40% of students in Katy, Cy-Fair, or Houston ISD just not returning to school after Spring Break. If that had happened while school was occurring in person there would have been no end to the amount of coverage that story received in the media- and rightfully so. However, I think the sheer magnitude of the learning loss that had been occurring was swept up in the overall mess of the pandemic. After all, how could we expect students to learn anyways in such an undesirable circumstance? the le were sick, businesses were closed, and parents were having to stay home. Why would we expect that students would be able to attend school as consistently and without interruption as they had before the pandemic?

While that thought may have been reasonable on some level, the fact is that when more than one out of three students in one of our nation’s largest school districts did not finish the Spring 2020 semester, we should have all become very nervous. Those students’ lack of access to the internet and a stable environment to learn was no exception but rather was the rule. Most students have barriers in place at home when it comes to learning compared to in-person classes offered in the school building. It’s just a matter of how high those barriers are and whether a student can clear the barriers and learn despite the pandemic and the remote learning that quickly became associated with it perhaps more than anything else. 

Depending on where you live, remote learning may still be a regular issue for you and your child. Many school districts broke away from remote learning when the opportunity to do so first presented itself. Other districts hung onto remote learning far later. Maybe history will favor one side over the other as we gain valuable years between ourselves and this pandemic in the future. For now, all we can do is assess remote learning for what it was and what it is likely to be in the coming years. 

Regarding the relationship between remote learning and child custody, we can look at this subject as one which impacts conservatorship rights/duties as well as possession. While the education of your child is surely a subject that will have great importance in your household in more than just these areas, I think it is wise to focus solely on them as we conclude today’s blog post. This way we can keep our eyes on just a few important areas rather than risk losing sight of what matters most- the well-being of your children. 

Remote learning and conservatorship

Conservatorships issues in a divorce or child custody case relate to being able to make decisions and hold rights on behalf of your children. One of the duties of parenting is to ensure that your child can attend school. Beyond attending school, you need to be able to ensure the health and well-being of your child as well. The balance of those two subjects is especially important during this era of COVID-19. Can choose where your child attends school but the bottom line is your child does need to be in schooling of some sort. Homeschooling and virtual learning have been something that parents have taken advantage of for years now.

You and your Co-parent will likely share rights and duties about your children. This is typical in joint managing conservatorship arrangements. however, the primary conservatorship in these situations typically can hold superior rights regarding educational issues. this means that if you and your Co-parent disagree on sending your child to school in person or taking advantage of any remote options that still exist it will be better to be named as the primary conservator. Additionally, you can structure your final decree of divorce or child custody orders in such a way that you name an independent third party to be able to play tiebreaker on certain subjects if you and your Co-parent cannot agree.

The reality is that there is no set way to approach the issue of remote learning and child custody from a conservatorship’s viewpoint. Nobody can predict what conditions will be like on the ground in terms of case rates and all the other medical jargon that we have become familiar with throughout the past few years. To say that someone can guess how a respiratory virus will react to each of us is difficult, to say the least. I don’t know that it would make much sense to be specific in your final decree divorce when it comes to approaching this subject on a month-by-month or year-by-year basis. However, if you and your Co-parent do agree on certain issues regarding remote learning you can certainly include that language in your custody orders. 

For example, if both you and your Co-parent both agree that you want to take advantage of in-person schooling as much as possible then you should specify that in your final decree of divorce. Or come up if you prefer that your child attend remote learning for the time being you can do the same. Whatever your plan would be to approach this subject each time it becomes relevant you can specify how you are going to do that within these orders so there are no misunderstandings. You could require you were exposed to speak with you either in person, over the phone, or via email so that you can get their position on things before you move forward. It is much better to be able to layout what your plan would be rather than to guess.

Issues related to possession and remote learning

If you and your child found yourself in a position where you were taking advantage of remote learning options more so than in person for a specific period, then you could build this into your court orders. For example, if you and your ex-spouse agree that your child should do at-home learning for the foreseeable future then you could build your possession schedule around that reality. With less time needed for school travel in costs, you may choose to change the way you have set up possession and visitation. 

Another thing is that if your child does the remote school, he or she is effectively homeschooled. This means that you can attend class wherever there is Internet access. This can impact where you live to band your work schedule. Your family may find that being able to live wherever you would like can be freeing but bear in mind you may have a geographic restriction in place that prevents you from living absolutely wherever you would like. Be sure to think about all the costs and benefits of including a geographic restriction in your court orders especially if your child will be homeschooled or taking advantage of virtual learning if that is an option.

When your child is homeschooled, this does present you with more options regarding a lot of different things. Many people who homeschool their children choose to be a bit nomadic in how they travel and live. Having roots in Houston or anywhere else may not be necessary if the school can go on the road with you. You do not need to limit yourself in terms of how and where your child goes to school other than by the terms contained in your court orders. They should give you some food for thought in terms of how you can structure those orders to best accommodate the needs of you and your family.

Since nobody knows the future of remote learning you must consider your family’s specific circumstances before making any plans or building these subjects into your court orders. What you do not want to do is set up an elaborate system for determining whether your child should attend in-person or remote schooling only to find that it is impractical or unnecessary given the changes or possible end of the pandemic. Ideally, you would like straightforward and clear orders that allow your child to go to school consistently in an environment that you and your co-parent agree is in his or her best interests. 

Questions about the material contained in today’s blog post? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan

If you have any questions about the information contained in today’s blog post please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free of charge consultations six days a week in person, over the phone, and via video. These consultations are a great way for you to learn more about the world of Texas family law as well as about how your family circumstances may be impacted by the filing of a divorce or child custody case.