When it comes to school and family travel, it’s easy to feel like the conversation is either/or. As in either you value school or you value travel. Either you would never pull your children out of school to travel or you would always do so. Classroom learning is categorically important; travel always teaches more than what you learn inside four walls.
As with so much of our cultural discourse these days, this is uncomfortable and polarizing. It means that people feel like they have to take a position, and so they do. I know parents who would never have their children miss a day of school for travel and I know parents who ignore attendance policies only to get form letters from the school district when their children have too many unexcused absences. I know parents who have said their children were sick but who have instead taken them on a family trip. I know parents who offer to Skype with their children’s classes from distant lands.
So is it acceptable to take your child out of school to travel?
Travel is valuable; so is school
My sons were in preschool and first grade when I first started this site and I kicked what was already a fairly active family travel schedule into an even higher gear. Come rain or shine, my boys and I got out exploring the world. Putting on their kids waterproof shoes and waterproof coats, we would be ready for whatever weather we were hit with. I cringe when I think of my posture during those early days because I was so quick to dismiss the notion that I would ever think twice about pulling my children from school to travel. To my mind, nothing that the boys were doing in school would trump what they could learn from the experiences I would show them. I didn’t like the fact that our public school even had an attendance policy (based on state law), which seemed rigid and uncompromising to me.
It is easy to vilify the American attitude about school and success. We’re a nation of adults who take just half of our paid time off, getting ahead being more important that getting away. When it comes to school, we march to the beat of instructional time, insisting that the classroom is the best place for learning. Some schools even offer prizes for perfect attendance.
(This is my least favorite prize ever. Seriously? You want to encourage people to send their sick children to school? It’s hard for me to see the virtue in that.)
I’m not a rebellious person, but I don’t like being told that there’s one right way to do things or that my values are misguided. So when people would say to me that I was smart to travel with the boys when they were young because a time would come when they couldn’t miss school I would nod politely and think something along the lines of “and we also won’t be able to travel because the sky will be full of flying pigs.”
But over the years my position has become more nuanced. For one thing, I love school. I loved it when I was a student and I love it for my children. They come home every day having learned something new. They are part of a community and both have many friends there who share different perspectives and experiences than what they see at home. Through school they have gotten to compete in new sports, build robots out of Legos, perform in musicals and concerts, create art, play touch football every day at recess, compete in the National History Bee, and take a trip to Quebec City – and of course, that does not include the fact that school has taught them both a lot of math, something I am loathe to do myself.
This week I’ve been reading Malala Yousafzai’s book about her struggle to stay in school in defiance of the Taliban, a struggle that almost ended her life when a gunman shot her in the head on her school bus as she returned home from taking exams. She has committed her life to helping girls around the globe attend school and her enthusiasm for learning and education is both charming and contagious. She cherishes learning as I want my children to cherish it – not just for an outcome but for the very joy and process of using her mind.
I’ve become increasingly aware of the privilege that my family has enjoyed in our school. When I went to Haiti, I visited a community where the school was nothing more than a tent with no indoor plumbing. On days that were too hot (like the one when I visited) school was closed because there wasn’t enough water for everyone to drink and no well nearby from which to get it.
And even in Delaware, where I live, there is a huge discrepancy in the quality of education in the public schools. My boys are lucky to attend a very good public charter school – and I mean that quite literally, as they got in via a lottery, similar to students who join charter schools in Manhattan, New York. But just miles up the road children in inner-city Wilmington attend schools where there aren’t enough supplies, teachers, or books. A friend who used to teach in one of them spoke to me once of having mice in her classroom. And the epidemic of gun violence in that community means just walking to and from school is hazardous. Forget travel: children who live in chaotic households and dangerous neighborhoods can’t always make it to a school that’s on the next block.
When is it OK to miss school for travel?
In spite of this, I still want to talk about missing school for family travel. Why? Because I still feel that sometimes it is the right choice. Not always, not ever lightly or carelessly, but there are moments when it makes sense for those of us who are lucky enough to have the chance.
There are as many reasons why you might need to take your child out of school as there are family vacations to take. It’s less expensive to travel during the offseason and sometimes that means a dream trip becomes possible. Sometimes parents have jobs where they can’t get time off during school holidays but want to take a family vacation with their kids. Sometimes a family’s passion is for a weather-dependent sport that happens during winter rather than summer. Sometimes a distant family member needs a visit. Sometimes there’s a concert or cultural event that you really want to share with your children. Life happens.
In 2015 we had the opportunity to spend ten days in Italy, part of that time visiting friends who were spending a sabbatical year in Ferrara. Because they are also inveterate travelers, they planned trips for almost all of their school vacations, which generally overlapped (and in fact exceeded) the ones at my sons’ school. That meant we’d have to visit them when school was in session. This idea also made sense since we planned to go to Venice as well. Since this city is without fail crowded and expensive during any holiday, it made much more sense to go there in between the high seasons of Christmas and Easter. So we went during Lent.
The boys missed a week of school and instead learned about Marco Polo, Byzantine culture, the Etruscans, how mosaics are made, what happened in Bologna during World War II, who invented the italic font, and how incredibly delicious squid is, among many, many other things. We had Saint Mark’s Square almost to ourselves on a brilliant spring day. We made memories with our friends and with each other.
And then we came home and went back to school.
Tips for taking kids out of school to travel
Although you may have to break (or at least bend) the rules to take your child out of school for a family trip, there are savvy ways to do this so that your kids reap the benefits of travel without suffering repercussions
Talk about your trip with your kids. When you plan a trip that will have your children out of school and other activities, talk to them first to see what their feelings are and what the consequences will be. Make sure you know about any important special events like field trips or big games that they might miss. It’s unfair to assume that they will be delighted about your trip if you haven’t taken into account the things that matter to them.
Some kids do better with absences than others. If your child struggles in school or becomes unhappy or worried when she falls behind, you might want to reconsider whether pulling her from school makes sense.
Know the attendance policy. Unlike absence due to illness, absence due to travel is usually not considered excusable. That’s why you need to know how many unexcused absences is your child is permitted. The number varies from state to state and school to school. In most states, if your child reaches a certain number of unexcused absences, you will receive an automatically generated letter from the school. This letter may require you to have a meeting with school staff and in extreme cases can prevent your child from being promoted to the next grade.
Another thing to note is that your children’s teachers may not be required to let them make up missed work if the absences are not excused. Most teachers won’t be sticklers about this (neither of my sons has ever had one who was), but it is possible that your children’s grades will be affected if they aren’t allowed to make up missed work. You and your children have to decide if this is important to you.
Communicate with the school staff. Before we left on our Italian trip I called the principals of both their schools and told them what we were doing. I explained that I knew the absences would not be excused but said that I hoped the school could understand the educational value of what we would be doing – both of them did.
Teachers should be kept in the loop as well. When your children are younger you may have to be the one who talks with individual teachers, but once your children hit fourth or fifth grade you can ask them to do this. Make sure your children have the dates of your trip written down and have them ask their teachers if they can work ahead at all.
When we went to Italy, my older son Tommy, who was then in the seventh grade, spent the weekend before we left finishing a science project that would be due while he was gone. He turned it in so that it wouldn’t be late and wouldn’t inconvenience his teacher.
It’s important to be upfront about your plans – sneaking around or feigning ignorance are unfair to both your child and to the school staff. And it’s also unfair to expect your children’s teachers to give you work to take with you – they may not have assignments prepared in advance. Instead your child may need to spend time inside at recess or after school when you return to catch up with homework or tests. Be sure to help your child manage this make up work.
Recognize that not everyone values travel. My children have peers whose parents simply don’t understand why my family travels so much. Some of their teachers over the years have felt this way as well. And even though I will always try to persuade people that travel is such a meaningful and important experience for kids, I also know that not everyone will be convinced. And that’s OK – I don’t want them to impose their priorities on me either. I know that what I’m doing is right for my family and so I don’t worry about what other people think.
When I spoke with the principal of my older son’s school before we went to Italy she said that she approved of our trip and that we should “do this while you can, while Tommy is still in junior high.” The implication was that she didn’t really want to hear from me again once he was in high school because that’s when his performance and grades matter as part of the bigger picture of college acceptance.
What she doesn’t realize is that if something great comes up when he’s in high school, I will consider it. And I’ll call her and ask. That’s because when it comes to family travel I’m trying to follow a mindful middle path, one where I live in the present without making categorical decisions about what will or will not be possible before events have unfolded.
But I like to think that I’ll come to this conversation from a place of humility and gratitude for the blessings I and my family enjoy. After all, the two things I prize most are our ability to travel and the wonderful school we have to come home to.
(The photos in this post are from our 2015 trip to Italy; I’ll be writing about that soon, so stay tuned.)