The spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has caused stress and uncertainty for millions of people across the country.
As we all practice good hygiene and social distancing in an effort to help flatten the curve and keep ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities safe, there are still lots of questions to be answered — including the best practices for families who are co-parenting or sharing parenting time of children during this ongoing pandemic.
For parents who are divorced or separated, co-parenting can be complicated to navigate even under the best of circumstances. This arrangement can be even more challenging during emergency situations, when parents must work together to protect the health and safety of their children.
In addition, COVID-19 has upended normal routines for many of us, both here in Chicago and around the world. Parents who normally commute are now working from home. Many healthcare professionals and first responders are working long hours in order to provide care for their communities. School has been cancelled across the country, and young students are adjusting to learning in virtual classrooms. Restaurants, gyms, theaters, and other outlets have been closed, and many forms of transportation are slowing down travel or canceling routes.
During these uncertain times, it’s important for parents who are divorced or separated and sharing parental rights and responsibilities of their children to have a plan in place to keep things running smoothly, and, most importantly, to ensure that everyone is able to remain safe. Here are some important guidelines and ideas to keep in mind for co-parenting during coronavirus and other emergency situations:
Parenting Time Guidelines in Response to COVID-19
The Chief Judge of the Domestic Relations Division of Cook County has entered a General Order regarding parenting time, in order to pre-empt any co-parenting issues that may arise during the COVID-19 outbreak. Here are the relevant guidelines:
- This order applies to and clarifies Parenting Time Schedule Order and Custody Judgments during the current reduction of Court operations during the Coronavirus pandemic. A parenting order is defined to include any temporary order allocating parenting time between the parties, any Allocation Judgment, and any Joint Parenting Agreement.
- For purposes of determining a person’s right to possession of and access to a child under a court-ordered Parenting Time schedule, the parties’ regular parenting time schedule shall control in all instances. Possession and access shall not be affected by the school’s closure that arises from an epidemic or pandemic, including what is commonly referred to as the COVID-19 pandemic, and such closure shall not be considered a “day off from school.”
- Unless otherwise directed by further order of the Court, the parties shall continue to follow their respective parenting time schedules.
- Nothing herein prevents parties from altering a possession schedule by agreement if allowed by their court order(s), or courts from modifying their orders. Parties are strongly encouraged to act in the best interest of their children and are strongly admonished from taking acts that would imperil the physical health of any child, including unnecessary or discretionary travel.
The long and short of it? As of now, regular schedules for parenting time are still in effect, but parents are being encouraged to be flexible and mindful of keeping their children healthy and safe, particularly in the face of these extraordinary circumstances.
Additionally, the Court has made it clear that anyone who brings a motion before the Court that is not a “true emergency” will be subject to sanctions. There are alternatives, such as arbitration and mediation, which can be conducted via teleconferencing if needed.
The Cook County guidelines align with those issued by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) and Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC), which encourage parents who are divorced or separated to “be compliant with court orders and custody agreements:”
As much as possible, try to avoid reinventing the wheel despite the unusual circumstances. The custody agreement or court order exists to prevent endless haggling over the details of timesharing. In some jurisdictions there are even standing orders mandating that, if schools are closed, custody agreements should remain in force as though school were still in session.
At the same time, the AAML and AFCC note that “it would be foolish to expect that nothing will change.” Some parents will need to work extra hours in order to manage the crisis; others may find themselves out of work or having their hours reduced temporarily. Flights will be grounded, and many events and attractions will be canceled or closed. As a result, “plans will inevitably have to change” for parents.
Responding to the Crisis With Flexibility, Creativity, Patience, and Understanding
During this turbulent time, it may be necessary to be creative, transparent, generous, and understanding with parenting schedules. Divorced parents may need to be in contact more than usual; both sides may need to make concessions on time and travel in order to ensure the health and safety of their children.
Be honest and open with your co-parent in responding to the virus, including if you suspect that you or someone close to you has been exposed. Work together to come up with a plan to protect your child, and be ready and willing to communicate, especially if you suspect that your child may be exhibiting some of the symptoms of the virus.
For those times when parents aren’t able to be with their kids in person, be flexible and creative. For instance, you can still feel close during quarantine by connecting over FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype. Parents can also share experiences with their children remotely, like watching a movie or reading together over the phone.
The AAML and AFCC also encourage co-parents to be generous, and to “try to provide makeup time to the parent who missed out, if at all possible.” As their guidelines explain:
Family law judges expect reasonable accommodations when they can be made and will take seriously concerns raised in later filings about parents who are inflexible in highly unusual circumstances.
If possible, try to be understanding and accommodating of a co-parent’s changing schedule and economic circumstances during this ongoing emergency situation. While undoubtedly challenging and scary, these difficult moments can nevertheless provide an opportunity for parents to work together in the best interests of their children.
Parenting In a Pandemic
Being cooped up indoors can make both parents and children feel on edge after a few days, let alone weeks on end. During the COVID-19 outbreak, life will still continue on at home — and it’s important for parents to be prepared to spend a lot of extra time with their kids.
Rather than panicking, make a plan, and don’t hesitate to get your children involved. As parenting coach and author Eirene Heidelberger explains:
Including them will help them feel in control and assume ownership… They will also be much more likely to take care of their chores and responsibilities when they know they are getting to participate in things they are excited about, because they helped choose them. This conversation puts the entertaining and buy-in on the kids because they directed the plans.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that everyone’s rhythms will be different for a bit. Try to keep a regular schedule around your household, and don’t abandon all routines! This can lead to stress, boredom, and anxiety for kids and parents alike. Instead, keep regular meal times, and find a way to structure your days at home. For example, break up your kids’ days into blocks including schoolwork, screentime, quiet reading time, and family exercise time. Don’t forget to make time for yourself to relax and focus on something personal to you, whether that means reading a book, watching your favorite show, or taking a walk.
Keep active and engaged! Brainstorm fun ideas for keeping the whole family entertained. Here are a few ideas to get your list started:
- Find a pen pal. Generation Xers probably remember having a pen pal or 10. This is a great way for kids to practice handwriting. Then, you can screenshot the letter and send it virtually.
- Take walks. Take a walk through your neighborhood. Be sure to maintain a healthy distance when you go outside, and be sure to comply with all local orders. In Chicago, this means staying away from parks and trails that have been closed, including the Lakefront and the 606.
- Connect with friends — virtually. Allow kids to have FaceTime chats with their friends and family members, or connect safely with their friends on Facebook Messenger for Kids, a free video calling and messaging app for smartphones and tablets that lets kids stay in touch with the help of fun filters and stickers. People are inherently social beings, and not being able to communicate with others will make for very grumpy kids.
- Screentime. As a family, choose what you want to watch together on Netflix or online. Take advantage of fun resources that are popping up online, like interactive live streams from museums and kid-friendly artists like Mo Willems, who is hosting a livestream lunch doodle every weekday.
- Exercise as a family. Have the kids pick what types of workouts to do: dance party, bootcamp, silly moves, yoga, kickboxing, you name it! For ideas, look up fun activities on YouTube, or give some business to the personal trainers who offer virtual workouts or fitness apps. Some favorites around Chicago include Comfy Fitness and Feuerbach Fitness, LLC. Remember to take breaks from sitting all day. Try to stand up every 30 minutes for about 10 minutes. Shake it out and get the blood flowing again before everyone sits back down to work or focus on homework.
Finally, remember to take steps to be safe, stay healthy, and remain calm. Comply with all CDC and local and state guidelines and model proper behavior for your kids. Help model regular hand washing, wipe down frequently touched surfaces and household objects, and encourage your family to practice proper social distancing. Be informed and regularly consult reliable, trustworthy media sources for updates, but avoid unhelpful rumors and speculation.
Remember, your kids will look to you for guidance and inspiration. Trust your instincts about how much to communicate with your children. When asked, be honest about the pandemic, but remember to maintain a calm attitude and emphasize that everything will be alright, and will return to normal in time. Be open to questions, and give plenty of space for your kids to express themselves without judgment.
We Are Here For You
Do you have any parenting tips you want to share? We’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas on social media! Have any more questions about co-parenting, or any other aspect of family law or divorce? We are here for you. If you or your family is struggling to adjust and you may have a legal issue to address, please give us a ring or drop us a line.
As our community adjusts to the ongoing efforts to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Law Offices of J. Jeltes will be working full-time, remotely. Our support staff will continue to be able to assist you and will be receiving all calls and messages during our normal business hours, 9:00 a.m.- 5:00 p.m. We hope everyone is practicing self-care and staying safe and healthy.