Hey Bank of Dad. I know coronavirus has impacted everything. But I’m frustrated with my child’s preschool. Some parents are talking about preschools during regular online gatherings, sending families materials with accompanying lessons, and online extracurricular sessions (music, etc.). But my preschool is doing next-to-nothing except sending out lots of emails about school finances. I’m basically paying them to remind me to pay them. This is harsh and I know times are tough. But do I have to pay them? — Stephen R., via email
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Stephen, I get it. It’s bad enough that preschoolers all over the country aren’t learning in a structured environment right now – and that parents are being subjected to far more Daniel Tiger viewing than any adult should. In many cases, families are still being charged for an education their children aren’t receiving. It’s a tricky situation, particularly if your child’s preschool isn’t leaning hard into virtual learning, which seems to be the case.
Let’s talk about this in a legal sense first. If you’re still receiving a bill from your kid’s school, you may or may not have a legal requirement to send in a check. Ultimately, it comes down to whether you signed a contract when you enrolled your son or daughter and what language it contains, says Tyler Smith, an attorney in Kennebunk, Maine. It may be time to pull the document out of your file drawer and give it a close read.
In cases where there’s specific language requiring you to pay during a public health emergency, then you’re probably on the hook. But you could find just the opposite to be the case. For example, some contracts include a clause known as a “force majeure,” which mitigates the risk to one party or the other when, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, there’s “an event or effect that can be neither anticipated nor controlled.” The exact wording of that clause, if there is one, could absolve you of your financial obligation.
No doubt, a lot of parents will find themselves is a more nebulous middle ground, with contractual language that simply isn’t very clear — obviously not a lot of administrators were predicting the worst pandemic in a century — or no formal agreement at all. If that’s the case, then it becomes a matter for the courts to decide, should one of the parties pursue litigation.
If the agreement is silent on the matter, Smith says a judge would likely take into account how the school handled previous closures, including those due to inclement weather. But predicting how courts would rule is no mean feat; the prospect of a months-long hiatus is one we just haven’t seen before. “The ultimate question in situations where there is ambiguity in a contract is the intent of the parties,” says Smith.
In some cases, the contract may allow you to pull your child from the school, as long as they provide the required amount of notice. But if you were planning to enroll your son or daughter next year, there’s always the question of what happens to their spot. Unless you’re protected by iron-clad wording in the contract, you can’t exactly count on shooting to the top of the list when school re-opens.
Parents who find themselves in a gray area might want to contact the preschool and negotiate a solution, out of court. Ask if they’re willing to accept fewer payments this year, or a reduced amount; this is an especially good tact if they’re providing some instruction in a virtual setting. In turn, they may be willing to hold your child’s spot when the health crisis finally subsides. As with all legal matters, it’s important to get any agreement in writing and signed by both parties.
Of course, the legal question is only part of the equation in decisions like this. As with so many other small businesses, a lot of preschools tend to operate on razor-thin budgets. So parents are right to ask what the long-term effect would be, both for their child and other kids in the community, if theirs couldn’t survive the onslaught of COVID-19.
Whether its doors are open or closed, your kid’s school is almost certainly incurring certain expenses. Smith says that, in general, there’s no legal requirement for a preschool to continue paying teacher salaries during a health crisis. Regardless, the owners may have to dish out money for rent, salaries for administrators and a host of other expenses. Most still need income right now.
I’m lucky. I have two daughters enrolled in a preschool that isn’t asking us for another penny this year. Presumably they’re on solid ground for the time being. Not every school—or daycare, for that matter—is in the same boat. So to the extent that you can support them financially, it’s something you might want to consider.
The fact is, everyone was blind-sided by this coronavirus, including those who run private schools. That means a lot of parents won’t have clear legal language that tells them what to do in a situation like this. If you can find a solution where both parties shoulder some of the financial pain, and both remain above water, you might want to go for it. If not, you may want to look for a good attorney who can help you navigate the murky waters in which you’re now swimming.