The start of the 2021 – 2022 school year is right around the corner, and the Erie County Department of Health has recently announced that school will resume with a masking mandate firmly in place.

For parents, the certainty of a mask mandate may help reduce some conflicts. However, the start of the school year may also lead to other concerns. The new guidance may address some of these, but parents will need to find their own ways to address the rest. Hopefully they will be able to agree.

An overview of the new school guidance

Updated in late August 2021, the official guidance addresses the continued threat of COVID-19. Aimed at fostering in-person schooling while protecting the health of all students, teachers and staff, the guidance offers a series of mandates and recommendations. These include:

  • An indoor mask mandate for everyone ages 2 and above. This mandate includes students, teachers, staff, vendors and visitors, regardless of vaccination status.
  • A mask mandate for buses. As with the indoor mask mandate, this bus mandate includes everyone, regardless of role or vaccination status.
  • An outdoor mask recommendation. The guidance strongly recommends, but does not require, mask use outdoors.
  • Physical distancing, especially during lunches and among those who do not wear masks outdoors. Students should sit at least 3 feet apart to remove their masks during lunch, and schools should keep seating charts for the lunchroom.
  • Mask breaks. Students will be permitted 5-minute mask breaks. They can take these once per hour, so long as they remain seated at their desks and more than 6 feet from any other student taking a break.
  • Mask mandates for all student athletes not actively participating in the sporting event. The guidance also encourages students to wear masks during their events unless they cannot tolerate the mask use. Coaches, trainers and other staff must wear masks.
  • COVID testing. The guidance recommends weekly screening tests for all unvaccinated students and staff so long as the transmission rates are moderate or higher.
  • Greater flexibility for vaccinated students, teachers and staff. The guidance says that vaccinated people may not need to quarantine as long or fully as the unvaccinated.
  • Limited exceptions for disabilities or medical conditions.

Notably, the guidance includes a note about possible updates. Schools will follow the guidance as the school year begins, but the guidance may change as the circumstances change.

Responding to the updated guidance as parents

For divorced and separated parents, the guidance may prove something of a mixed bag. Mandates are mandates. They might frustrate you, but they’re clear. They’re rules that must be followed. The recommendations, however, open room for disagreement. So, what can you do when you and the other parent disagree on how to respond?

The current recommendations leave parents room to decide whether they feel their children should:

  • Wear masks during outdoor activities
  • Wear masks as they perform in athletic events
  • Utilize physical distancing in the lunchroom and outdoors
  • Avoid sitting next to children from other families on the bus
  • Take advantage of mask breaks
  • Test regularly for COVID

You and the other parent may not agree on these things. Furthermore, you may not agree on the many things that a new school year entails and that the guidance does not address, such as:

  • Whether you should host friends for indoor visits after school
  • Whether friends should wear masks in your home
  • Whether your child should participate in band, theater, sports or other extracurricular activities
  • Whether you and your child wear masks for indoor activities that take place after school, like shopping
  • How to handle visitations if anyone tests positive for COVID or shows symptoms

As news reports from across the country have noted, these concerns have troubled parents throughout the pandemic. The beginning of the new school year may not be the first time you’ve had to co-parent through such issues, but it may be time to reevaluate your positions. As the science changes, policies change and opinions change, you may need to be flexible with a parenting plan that was never intended to accommodate a pandemic.

When to stand your ground

Ultimately, New York law focuses on your child’s best interests. You and the other parent may not agree on everything, but custody isn’t about you; it’s about your child. Experts generally recommend that the parties try to be flexible. The pandemic has introduced many challenges no one could have expected. So long as you can work together, that’s typically best for your child. You might, however, want to communicate your decisions through a written medium. They won’t carry the power of law, but they can help clarify expectations and show your efforts to work with the other parent.

Ultimately, the parent who is sole custodian or is the primary parent will have the final say in most matters. The fact that we’re in a pandemic does not give the other parent the right to ignore your requests. Nor does it give either parent the right to ignore the other’s interest in joint custody and access concerns. Instead, if the parenting plan no longer reflects your child’s best interests, you may choose to modify the plan. A modification to your parenting plan may provide your child the best way to get safely through the pandemic and live happily ever after.