School Choice In A Pandemic

From the Globe & Mail

An Ontario Superior Court judge has ruled that a nine-year-old boy will attend school in-person this fall after his separated parents could not agree about whether he should attend classes during the pandemic.

The case is part of an increase in custody-related disputes linked to COVID-19, which has complicated decisions around parenting time, schooling and other issues that can be fraught even without the added complications of a global pandemic.

The boy’s mother wanted her son to attend school in-person. She said the boy had trouble focusing on assignments and suffered from isolation since schools closed during the early days of the pandemic last spring. He is enrolled in a French immersion program despite neither parent being bilingual. The mother argued in-person schooling would allow him to be more successful.

The boy’s father, instead, wanted his child to attend virtual school. He said that while he recognized the social and academic benefits of their son being in a physical classroom, he argued that the health risks posed by the pandemic remained high. He was also concerned that wearing a mask in school would make it harder for his son to communicate.

Justice Andrea Himel ruled in favour of the mother, ordering the child to attend his Newmarket, Ont., school in-person this fall.

“School attendance in the midst of a pandemic is a challenging issue for many parents,” Justice Himel wrote in her decision, issued late last month. “Unfortunately, for some separated and divorced parents this is another battleground, one more arena where their child may become the prisoners of the war.”

Melanie O’Neil, the lawyer who represented the mother, said many clients have reached out to her in recent months with concerns that are rooted in personal anxieties. She said parents with different thoughts on mask-wearing, government plans or restricted visits to older relatives are unable to come to a consensus about their children.

“Justice Himel basically set the record straight and said, ‘Let’s look at it from the lens of the particular child. What’s in the child’s best interest?’ And in this case, the child’s best interest was to be with his friends, to attend school in person,” she said.

Two other Canadian rulings have dealt with parents who disagreed over their child’s return to school. In the first, the Quebec Superior Court ruled that the child would have to learn from home because a family member suffered from an autoimmune disease.

But in the second, the same court ordered children back to school because assessing the risk of contamination in schools was the responsibility of government authorities, the judge said.

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