Separated parents are dealing with unique and significant challenges this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Courts across the country have generally affirmed that COVID-19 is not a valid reason to deny parenting time to a parent who is otherwise fit to care for their child(ren), and many states have advised parents to follow normal custody schedules during the pandemic.
While all of this might be good general guidance, we know that following “normal” custody schedules is simply not practical in a world full of “new normals”. COVID-19 is an extraordinary public health event for which there are no prior precedents, and for many families, scheduling disruptions and lingering concerns about the virus will most certainly impact holiday parenting/custodial time, perhaps in some very significant ways.
COVID-19 and Holiday Gatherings
The CDC has issued various guidelines for how to safely conduct holiday gatherings this year. Among them include:
- Consider the current number and rate of COVID-19 cases in the community before planning a holiday gathering.
- Limit the number of people at the gathering (the CDC does not recommend a specific number).
- Limit the duration of gatherings as longer gatherings pose more risk of spreading the virus.
- If the weather permits, use an outdoor venue rather than indoor one for your gathering. If indoors, make sure the venue has good ventilation such as open windows and/or doors.
- As much as possible, limit the attendees to those who live in the same area.
- Ensure that attendees follow recommended mitigation efforts, such as distancing, wearing of face coverings, handwashing, and the frequent use of sanitation.
When considering whether or not to bring a child to a holiday gathering (such as Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s house for example), these and other factors need to be taken into consideration. In years past, you may have thought nothing of bringing your child to interact with your parents, even if he/she had the sniffles. But since seniors are at the highest risk of severe and fatal illness from COVID-19, you will need to think carefully about whether or not it is a good idea to have your kids visit their grandparents this year.
Along these same lines, holiday shopping is sure to be a far different experience this year. In a typical year, crowded malls and long lines do not bother most shoppers, and visits with Santa are often one of the highlights for children. If this is something your child looks forward to every year, it would be a good idea to manage their expectations.
COVID-19 and Holiday Travel
Traveling is another area where families will need to make a lot of adjustments this year. Traveling to different places and coming into contact with different people increases the chances of spreading the virus, so the CDC advises that staying home is the best way to protect yourself, especially if you are in a high risk category.
All that said, we know that travel is a major aspect of holiday parenting/custodial time for many separated parents. If you and your ex live in a different state or even on the other side of the same state, it is pretty hard to avoid having your children travel to a different area in order to spend time with the other parent. This will require meticulous planning to ensure safe travel, and for children who normally travel alone, it might be a very good idea to have one of the parents accompany them this year.
In some cases, it might make sense to forgo holiday travel for this year, especially if the parents live a significant distance from each other and flying is usually the way the kids travel back and forth. As an alternative, you could schedule several days of virtual visits (through Zoom or whatever other platform) and/or make up for the lost in-person time later. Every individual situation is different, so you will need to speak with the other parent about the best way to handle travel this year.
Parental Disagreements about the Pandemic
We would be remiss if we did not talk about one of the major issues that separated parents have dealt with during the COVID-19 outbreak; disputes over how serious the pandemic really is and how to deal with it. When the outbreak started last spring, the country was largely united in its resolve to “slow the spread” and “flatten the curve”. But as time has gone on, people are becoming more divided about this issue, and at times it has reached the point where things have become very contentious and it is very hard to find any common ground.
Get Professional Help with Your Holiday Parenting Plan
If you find yourself in a situation where you cannot come to an agreement with your ex about holiday parenting/custodial time during COVID-19, it might be time to consider getting outside help rather than battling things out in court. One method that has worked well for many couples is mediation.
Mediation is a voluntary process in which a neutral, third-party mediator guides the discussion toward peaceable and workable solutions that all participants can agree to. It costs only a fraction of the cost of going back to court, and sessions can be done in person or remotely, whatever the participants are most comfortable with.