Many of our regular traditions have been interrupted, changed and adapted this year in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, but for many families, one of the biggest challenges has yet to come. No matter what holiday a family celebrates, the December holiday season often represents generations of annual traditions involving extended family and friends. In addition, children are out of school for a prolonged period, and many people take time away from work.

For divorced and separated parents, the holidays often mean splitting parenting time. For children who reside primarily with one parent for the majority of the year, especially parents who are geographically distant, the holidays might be one of the few times of the year where the children have the opportunity to visit their other parent. However, this year the pandemic has raised several complications with travel, and social gathering restrictions.

As of November 24th, Alberta is under enhanced public health measures for at least 3 weeks. These measures could be extended into the holiday season, pending a further review of infection rates in the province. At present, the restrictions include the following mandates:

  • no indoor social gatherings of any kind with people outside of members of one’s household
    • this specifically does not apply to preexisting parenting arrangements
  • children in grades 7-12 are moved to at-home learning until January 11th
  • children in grade 6 or younger will move to at-home learning after the holiday break,, until January 11th
  • religious services may continue, but must be limited to 1/3 of the normal capacity.

While there is nothing stopping parents from continuing with regular parenting plan schedules so far, it is very possible that there are other factors that could necessitate adjusting the visitation schedule this year. For example, if the child(ren) are immunocompromised or live with someone who is, it may not be safe to allow them to travel between households. If visiting the other parent requires air travel or crossing into another country, international restrictions might prohibit this.

Given the extraordinary nature of the situation, parents would be advised to ensure they have plans in place, as well as backup plans should they become necessary last minute. Below, we provide some tips for parents to consider leading up to the 2020 holiday season.

Review Parenting Plans

Review the usual plans, and identify any potential roadblocks early on, in order to make alternate arrangements where necessary. It is especially important for co-parents to communicate and share in decisions. When one parent makes a unilateral choice to change an existing plan, it may result in litigation, as demonstrated in a case earlier this year where a mother made the decision to deny the father access to their children over concerns the father was not taking the pandemic seriously. In that case, an Alberta judge set out factors parents should consider when reviewing and making decisions to alter parenting plans.

Ensure Everyone is on the Same Page

When parents disagree over their response to the pandemic, including the use of masks or the restrictions on socializing, this can cause stress and disagreement. If one parent is worried about the safety of their children when in the care of the other, they may resort to a court application to restrict the other parent’s access. We previously wrote about a case where the co-parents had made the choice to isolate together with their children, and the mother became concerned about the father’s cavalier attitude towards hygiene practices and socializing. She brought an application to the court, and the father was ordered to leave the matrimonial home.

Communicate Openly With Children

Communication is key to keeping children aware of any changes to their regular routine. If plans must be changed, explain why, and try to make alternate arrangements that will still allow them to remain in touch with their other parent. If visitation is not a viable option this year, consider arranging for regular video chats between children and their parent (and other family members) over the holidays. Perhaps make a plan to find another time to allow an in-person visit once it becomes safe to do so. It’s important to keep in mind that the current circumstances are temporary, and by working together, parents can help keep family connections intact this holiday season.

The family law lawyers at Mincher Koeman are exceptionally experienced with respect to parenting plans and child access arrangements following the breakdown of a relationship. Contact our office today by calling us at 403-910-3000 or contact us online.

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