The K-12 schooling situation since early 2020 in Michigan has been tumultuous to say the least. Between lockdowns, forced remote learning and concerns over social distancing and reducing the spread of COVID, it has been far from normal. Now, with the upcoming 2021-2022 school year, there is a concerted effort to bring learning back to a sense of normalcy, with traditional in classroom instruction. As part of this effort, there has been a strong push for vaccinations across all students ages 12 and over, in order to ensure classrooms will be a safe learning environment for all.

However this has not been an easy issue to tackle for parents, with a nearly even split down the middle between those in favor of vaccinating their children, and those who are not. This contentious issue is made even more difficult when a child’s parents are separated or divorced, bringing into play questions regarding custody and how the decision whether or not to vaccinate is made. In cases where parents disagree on the matter, this has the potential to involve significant legal proceedings in family court. In these situations, a family law attorney is normally required in order to assist in sorting out the issue, hopefully coming to an amicable resolution while avoiding the courts altogether.

Factors Surrounding Vaccination

There are several factors to keep in mind when discussing a separated or divorced parents choice for vaccinating their children. First of all, if sole custody has been awarded to just one parent, then the other parent will have no say in the matter. However, Michigan law encourages joint custody whenever feasible to provide the child with as normal and healthy of an upbringing as possible. When there are legal disputes regarding vaccination of a child, this will involve joint custody and therefore that is what will be discussed here.

Michigan family courts view the choice regarding vaccination in the same manner as other joint custody issues, such as the school the child is sent to, the religion they are raised in, etc. So in the same manner as these other issues are settled, there must either be an agreement between parents, or the court will make the decision for them. The first option is obviously the least expensive and time consuming, and should be the goal in any of these disputes. In fact, when a family lawyer is working as an arbitrator to resolve these issues, having this settled in an agreement out of court is the ideal outcome. The Friend of the Court (FOC) can also act as an investigatory party and help to arbitrate a settlement in the absence of an attorney.

However when this issue cannot be resolved through a mutual agreement, a lengthy and expensive legal battle ensues. Something to be aware of is that the court will always proceed in a manner that they view to be in the best interest of the child. So in order for a case to be argued for or against vaccination of students for returning to school, there must be clear reasons that benefit the child one way or another. Having a clear case presented in front of a judge is key to improving the odds that the outcome desired is achieved.

There are generally two exemptions that a parent can successfully use to argue against the vaccination of their shared custody child. The first of these is a medical exemption, which requires a written doctor’s note stating that the vaccination poses more of a risk than not being vaccinated. The second is a religious exemption, which requires a parent to provide a written and signed letter stating vaccinations are a violation of their religious beliefs. A religious exemption is still subject to scrutiny from the school board, which can lead to potential legal battles if this is disputed.

On the flip side of the argument, there are some solid points that can be made in favor of vaccination. The primary one is if the student is in an “at-risk” category, meaning that they have a preexisting condition that makes them more liable to have serious medical problems resulting from contracting COVID. Many of these conditions include things such as diabetes, heart disease, breathing/lung issues, autoimmune disorders and obesity. If a child has any of these or a combination thereof, a court will find it difficult to not decide in favor of vaccination as it would be viewed to be in the best interest of the child.