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Financially preparing for back-to-school expenses during the pandemic

For many parents, August marks the start of back-to-school planning. While this year is no different, the preparations have changed due to the pandemic as the logistics of children returning to the classroom are more complicated than usual.

While you may not yet know if your children will be learning virtually or in-person, there are still ways to financially prepare for related expenses.

In-person expense planning

With the need to minimize contact and the sharing of supplies, basic school supplies like pencils, folders, crayons, rulers and glue are even more important this year, and so are safety items like masks and hand sanitizer. According to the National Retail Federation, the average American family plans to spend $789.49 on school supplies, which is up nearly $100 compared to last year.

Costs for virtual learning

As our communities continue to reel from the coronavirus, many schools are embracing virtual learning full-time, or creating contingency plans in the event of COVID cases impacting attendance. Hopefully the school district will provide the necessary technology your students’ needs, but in the event they don’t, it is important to be prepared for this added cost. Tablets and laptops can run from $330 – $1,300 depending on the brand you select. You might also want to consider different tools such as timers, planners or apps that can help your student stay focused and manage his or her time.

Creating a designated study space for your student at home could also cost some money. Desks and chairs can get pricey so look for ways to creatively reuse furniture you already have, or scout for deals and sales. If these extra expenses are not part of your monthly budget, start small and buy one thing at a time. Make a list of what your student needs and work it in your monthly costs as you can.

Unforeseen costs

In addition to planning for back-to-school costs—regardless of how schools will operate—it’s also important to refresh your finances related to personal costs related to insurance, at-home medical supplies and cleaning materials. Many students will be due for their annual medical physicals. Check in on your medical benefits to see if the preventative care for your student is covered or which clinics will offer back-to-school physicals.

Depending on your student’s after school activities, you might also need to plan for the costs of new gear and supplies. Be sure to talk with teachers and coaches regularly to know if activities are happening this year and what precautions you need to take to keep your child healthy.

Your grocery bill might also change during this atypical school year. You might need to spend more money on groceries to account for eating most meals and snacks at home. Or you might need to buy additional items for your child to safely eat lunch at school without requiring them to use communal supplies.

No question: the 2020 school year will be a novel experience for children, parents and school staff. Stay financially prepared for whatever is ahead by considering the costs for both in-person and virtual learning and building your budget early.

Wendel Abby Abby Wendel is the president of consumer banking at UMB Bank.

Back to school: tips for divorced parents

The beginning of every school year brings certain challenges for parents. This year, parents are facing new challenges as a result of COVID-19, particularly parents living in separate households with shared physical custody of their children.

The added stress and anxiety associated with these circumstances can give rise to added conflict with an ex-spouse, particularly if there is already a history of conflict. It is important, now more than ever, for parents to remember to focus on the best interests of their children.

Because many courts across the country are still operating on a limited or emergency basis, it may be more difficult to access the Courts. As a result, parents will have to rely more heavily on their own ability to resolve issues concerning their children’s education during this time, whether that is through counsel or alternative dispute resolution.

The new challenge parents are facing this school year is the decision between in-person learning, remote learning or hybrid options. The uncertainty concerning future virus outbreaks, the impending flu season, and the possibility of future governmental shut downs may make this a difficult decision for many parents. Parents’ work schedules may also impact their ability to facilitate remote learning.

If parent’s have joint decision-making authority for educational decisions, it may be unclear as to whether participation in remote learning opportunities offered by the child’s school is considered a major decision (requiring a joint decision) or a day-to-day decision (which can generally made without the other party’s consent). In either case, the best approach is to focus on the children and for the parents to get on the same page as much as possible as to approaching remote learning. Parents who already utilize communication tools such as Talking Parents or Our Family Wizard, can use those tools to not only communicate about learning schedules, but can also coordinate through shared calendars. Use of a shared calendar can help the parents know which parent will be ensuring that certain subject work is completed, but will also help mitigate the child’s ability to play the parents off of each other (such as telling both parents that work will be completed while at the other parent’s home).

Parents should discuss their expectations as to enforcing remote learning under these circumstances.  It would not be surprising if one parent has a different perspective or expectation than the other. One parent may feel is important to keep a strict schedule and insist that all course work is completed, while the other may feel a more relaxed approach is appropriate. Neither approach is inherently right or wrong. However, conflict between parents regarding these issues can lead to increased stress and anxiety in children, which may ultimately detract from their ability to succeed in school no matter the format. Given the lack of access to the courts and the generalized increase in anxiety, parents should be aware of these differences, and may have to be more willing to accept these differences, for the benefit of their children during these uncertain times.

While it will almost always be better for children if parents can agree as to how children will participate in school, one parent may find themselves diametrically opposed with the other. In that situation, parents will have to find a way to break the impasse. The use of a decision-maker or arbitrator may provide the means to resolve the dispute. A decision-maker/arbitrator is an individual appointed to step-in and the make the decision. This person will receive information from both sides as to their points of view and then enter a decision. The process for providing each side’s perspective can range from informal discussion to the formal presentation of testimony and evidence like a trial.

One major benefit of using a decision-maker/arbitrator is that the process is generally must faster than going through the court. While there are additional costs, those costs are usually shared in some way between the parties and can often end up being less overall than litigation through the Court (particularly if both parties are represented by counsel). Depending on the relevant laws, appealing or challenging a decision-maker/arbitrator’s verdict may be limited. As both sides must generally agree to use such an individual, a decision-maker/arbitrator cannot be ordered by the Court over one party’s objection.

In the alternative, parties can try resolve the issue through the Court by filing a motion. When addressing these issues Court’s will often consider things such as the safety precautions articulated by the school, the different remote or in-person options available, and any health concerns related to the children or parents. In addition to these factual considerations, there are legal considerations as well. There may be a legal question as to whether the Court has the authority to step in and make a decision as between parents with joint decision-making authority. Although this would seem to be directly in line as to the purpose of the Court, in some states it may not be a clearly decided legal issue.

As mentioned above, there may also be a question as to whether the issue of remote or in-person learning qualifies as a major or day-to-day decision. If the latter, the Court may determine that a joint decision is not required an each parent can decide whether the child will participate in remote or in-person learning during their respective parenting time. Such a result could create chaos for the parents, the school, and most importantly for the child.

Whether or not participation in remote versus in-person learning is considered a joint or day-to-day decision is perhaps more relevant if one parent has sole educational decision-making authority.

On the one hand, participation in remote learning is akin to ensuring attendance at a particular school. Arguably, and depending on the specific laws of each state, a parent with sole educational making authority has the ability to enforce the child’s attendance at a specific school of their choice.

On the other hand, decisions regarding attendance or absences based on illness, doctor’s appointments, etc. are more likely to be considered day-to-day decisions which do not require the consent of the other party, regardless of how major decision-making authority has been allocated.

However, as noted above, if the parents are not on the same page, trying to follow different school schedules during each parent’s parenting time could lead to chaos and cause anxiety for the child.

Regardless of whether there is an allocation of joint or sole decision-making, the best approach is for parents to try to get on the same page. If that is not possible, this is a time to pick and choose battles. Since many courts are operating on a limited or emergency basis, parents should not expect to get immediate relief from the court regarding a dispute over a child’s education at this time. If disputes during this time are part of a longer pattern of issues, a parent should keep a record or journal of these issues with dates and a short explanation of the issues. This record can then be used later if the need arises.

Overall, parents should try to be aware and understand that these are uncertain times for everyone. Uncertainty is often accompanied by anxiety and fear. Anxiety and fear can often lead to emotional responses that might not otherwise be expressed. While these circumstances may present opportunities for increased conflict, some families are finding that their shared goal of keeping their children safe against an unknown but powerful threat is creating collaboration and communication. Compromise is almost always the best option to resolve disputes in family. This is even more true now.

Jon Eric Stuebner is an attorney at Griffiths Law PC in Lone Tree, CO. His law practice is comprised of all areas of family law, including high conflict and complex asset dissolution cases, allocation of parental rights, and post-decree disputes. Jon Eric is also a former educator with a Master’s Degree in education.

Back to school chaos: 4 steps to take now to support working parents

As of the writing of this article, politicians and health officials at all levels agree on one thing: COVID-19 is going to get worse before the year ends. Meanwhile, school districts are making plans to resume teaching children in the fall in a wide array of formats, including: in-person classroom, online instruction, “hybrid” of live and online, compressed and variable scheduling, etc.

Some staff may refuse to return to work in schools open for live instruction out of fear of infection. If an outbreak occurs in a classroom, a school may suddenly close and require children stay home. With COVID-19 in control, working parents face a chaotic reality when their children return to school. 

Are you drafting plans right now to support working parents who must balance their children and their jobs?

Sticking your head in the sand, or taking a “Not my problem” attitude is perfectly legal and even tempting. However, being rigid or avoiding reality will likely have serious consequences including workplace chaos and the unnecessary loss of good employees.

For employers who value employees and wish to support them through this chaos, as well as increase the ability to keep the business on track, a radically flexible approach may be needed to manage these inevitable upcoming challenges.

Consider these four steps:

Step 1: Acknowledge the situation and engage employees in innovating solutions.

Survey employees in a discussion over what challenges they face with childcare and children returning to school.

Educate employees about the challenges and solicit an “all hands on deck” attitude.

Coach employees to be solution-oriented and facilitate problem-solving sessions for them to draft their own personal plan for managing and creating back-up plans. Some employees may be stressed out about their circumstances and the uncertainty imposed on them by COVID-19; they may benefit from fresh perspectives on their circumstances.

Engage in “war games” planning to identify and address “What if” scenarios such as, “What if half of our workforce cannot report to work due to school/ childcare closures?”

Step 2: Evaluate current practices and focus on what matters.

Adjust expectations of how work is done—focus on outcomes instead of “face time” hours. (Caution: non-exempt employees must be paid for all hours worked.)

Revisit attendance and leave request policies—allow for legitimate “last minute” requests due to school closures and avoid punitive consequences.

Ask all employees to collaborate and be more agile in responding to the disruption associated with the pandemic.

Evaluate benefits to provide more support to working parents and employees facing other challenges due to COVID-19.

Temporarily suspend “nice to do” but non-essential workplace activities; employees who are spending time on non-essential projects or committees may be needed elsewhere.

Explore how work can be completed in new ways. Empower employees to identify and eliminate wasteful actions, and define work-arounds to focus on core functions.

Identify skills in staff from other teams that can be temporarily reassigned to gaps created by a colleague who had to stay home due to school closure.

Create on-demand pools with the help of temporary staffing firms.

If a 9 – 5 pm, Monday – Friday schedule won’t work for employees, try a schedule that includes evenings as well as Saturdays and Sundays?

Evaluate vacation planning and other planned absences—it may be necessary to disallow them for months at a time. Though not popular, such a step may be one of the temporary shared sacrifices necessary to successfully navigate the chaos of COVID-19 this fall.

Step 3: Offer options to employees and build community.

Offer scheduling flexibility for working parents to plan for known and adjust for unknown challenges: compressed workweeks, intermittent schedules, transition to part-time status.

Build community among employees and guide them to share resources, ideas and creatively get work done while also supporting each other in new ways, such as:

Job sharing: employees with similar job tasks are “paired up” to allow each to take time off.

Task pooling: job tasks are assigned to a “pool” of employees who rotate through and complete work that must be done while having time to meet personal needs.

Cross-training: learning new skills and tasks may be necessary to enable employees to flex and cover for colleagues who must take time off.

Technology makes remote work a possibility for more jobs than employers think; engage employees in remote work planning and drafting new procedures to ensure accountability.

Empower managers to innovate and address evolving conditions, as well as encouraging them to build community with employees facing childcare challengers and devise “win-win” solutions.

Step 4: Maintain compliance and seek advice.

Various laws may impact your plans and require attention to ensure compliance.

  • FFCRA: mandated paid leave for certain employees may be required due to school district closures.
  • FLSA: avoid wage and hour violations for non-exempt hourly employees as well as exempt/ salaried employees who may take leave or work intermittent schedules.
  • Evolving laws: new federal legislation may be passed to amend FFCRA to expand benefits or possibly provide new entitlements; local laws may be passed that impose new requirements on employers.
  • Seek assistance from trusted advisors to navigate legal complexities and inform your strategic plans.