Custody and Visitation Exchanges During a COVID-19 School Year

By: Joseph Menze

[09.23.2020] As the school year in Northern Virginia begins, many parents are dealing with remote learning and partial school schedules for their children. On top of this, some parents are trying to navigate changes and uncertainty with a custody and visitation schedule, which uses the school day and school year to mark changes in custodial and visitation time.

With no real concept of going to school, extended weekends, or school breaks, what does this mean for custody orders outlining visitation “after school until 7:30 p.m.”, “during extended weekends”, or “on school breaks”? What once brought structure to the lives of divorced families now brings emotional chaos.

One case and judge from the Fairfax County Circuit Court laid out a simple rule to follow when handling these situations: proceed as if everything were normal! In a recent case, the Court essentially ruled to continue to have custodial exchanges, long weekends, and holiday time follow the regular school calendar. This judge’s ruling reads in pertinent part:

“The term – school break – is clearly associated with the school calendar. Reference to the school calendar is a typical and a prefer[ed] source of defining custodial time. By examining the calendar, parents and children can plan out the entire year — letting the children know when they can expect to be in [one parent’s care] and when they can expect to be in [the other parent’s care]. The Court expects that a necessary characteristic of every custody order where the parent[s] share custody is the reliability and consistency of the schedule. Children experiencing the upheaval of their parents divorcing benefit from a sense of stability that a clearly defined custodial schedule can provide. The school closings do not constitute the school breaks under this particular custody order.”

. . . The Court declines to define a school break that is defined by a present school calendar to include the extraordinary closing of schools due to a nationwide disaster.”[1]

The Court goes on to say that a national disaster can qualify as a material change to re-examine a custody and visitation schedule; however, the children’s best interest must be considered regardless of the situation and alleged material change. With the Court’s ruling in mind, parents should strive to abide by any current custody order/schedule as if a “normal” school year was occurring. In doing this, stability and consistency regarding visitation schedules will be met for both the children and parents.

If the custody order outlines dinner visitation from after to school until 7:30 p.m., the visitation should commence when the school day would traditionally end. If the custody order outlines custody during extended weekends, the parent would have custody only if the school would usually be closed in a non-COVID-19 world. While Labor Day and teacher workdays are examples of regular school closures, remote learning is not.

All things considered, with no real concept of going to school, extended weekends, or school breaks, families should continue to proceed as if everything were normal to maintain a sense of stability and consistency during this abnormal time.

To learn more about your rights, contact WhitbeckBennett by calling 800-516-3964 or email clientservices@wblaws.com.

[1] Ghafoor v. Ghafoor, CL 2012-5360, Memorandum Opinion and Order (Va. Cir. Ct. 2020).

Related: Child Custody