When you are a budget traveler, you are aware of shoulder season and how much it can save you in costs. But the reason there is shoulder season is because of parents like me. In the 2021-22 school year, 49.4 million children enrolled in US public schools. Since the late nineteenth century school has generally followed the same schedule, with small breaks around December and April, and one long break during the summer months. It makes traveling during this time expensive. But what if you *gasp* took your kids out of school for a trip? What does that look like? What do you need to consider? Every school year I have taken my kids out for a week to travel. Read on to see why and how.
Why It’s a Good Idea
Of course, cost is always a consideration, especially when a few in your party may not be able to contribute financially to the cost of your trip. Traveling when most people aren’t is great for your costs. But I would contend that are other good reasons that aren’t budget related.
In 2022, I took my kids out of school for a week to visit Washington DC. At the time my 4th grader was learning about the branches of government and my 6th grader was learning about the revolutionary war. Both kids learned more about these subjects in Washington DC than they would have in a classroom. In addition, they learned about Natural History, the Holocaust, and the lives of several famous presidents. Being immersed in a place can often teach you more than what is taught in the classroom. Providing the kids with that experience was worth it even if they did miss a few days of school. There are some experiences that it’s worth missing school for.
I want to clear; I have some advantages that not all families have. And these are some things to consider.
Academic Performance: Yes, grades are not everything. But if you have a child who is struggling and behind in school, pulling them out for a week will make it more difficult for them to catch up. I have always told my children that as long as they are getting As, I will continue to allow them to take time off school for our trips. But if they struggled academically, I would likely take a different approach. I also set aside time on our trips every day for them to either do makeup work or journal their day on the trip. I set the expectation that all their makeup work will be turned in on the first day we return to school, no excuses.
Public Schools Attendance is Required: My kids are fairly healthy, so they don’t miss a lot of school for illness. I’ll also admit, pre-pandemic I was that bad parent that only kept their kid home if they had a fever. When I pull my kids out of school for a week, that is usually the bulk of their absences for the entire year. In the United States, public schools are paid on attendance. If the student is not in class, the school does not receive funding for that child for the day. This has led to the drive to ensure attendance in school. If you have a lot of absences, you can start receiving issues with the school and it can lead to issues and even visits from truancy officers. I usually recommend missing no more than 5 school days a year for travel, and only if you do not have a lot of other absences or tardies.
It Gets Harder as they get older: In Kindergarten, my son missed school for a week for a wedding. He was told to read every day and wrote a small story on his visit to the Franklin Deleno Rosevelt Home. By 4th grade, the project was a full report and presentation on the three branches of government, including pictures she took on her trip as well as all her makeup work for the week. As they get older, the work gets harder to get done in an hour or two a day. And last year, we messed up and scheduled some travel days during state testing, causing my kids to have to miss more class time to make up the testing. Also, as they get involved in activities, those break into your schedule as well. Suddenly you can’t travel because there is a ball game or a dance performance, or it’s close to recital and all the practices are required. As your kids hit the teen years, make sure to keep the conversations open, because their schedule is not as flexible as it used to be.
Start Young: As I mentioned above, it gets harder as they get older. Starting younger gives you more options to have the trips you want at the times you want. It also allows you to set good academic habits with your children. They get used to knowing that make up work is required and setting aside time to do it. You build routines and learn what works for your families. As you get older, the kids will be more communicative with you about the conflicts they have.
Keep Open Communications with the Teachers: I start each school year getting to know the teachers and letting them know right up front if the kids are missing school and why. I have found that if keep an open line of communication with the teachers, they are often open to helping you with your plans. Generally, the teachers are excited about the plan. If I give them plenty of time, they can provide the makeup work, or make sure to send emails to my kids daily with the work. They also like to incorporate the trip into the work. When the kids were in elementary school, we took a few days to visit Disneyland. Both teachers provided a packet for the kids that required them to write about their trip and even had a scavenger hunt in the parks. My daughter presented her Washington DC presentation on the branches of government to her class. Last year, when we realized our planned absences were during state testing, communication went a long way in smoothing it over. We came up with a plan to ensure that they were able to get testing done with minimal interruption to their other classes. Making sure you let the teacher know what is going on helps make the process smoother.
Investigate Independent Study Programs: A number of states pay for education based on attendance. Schools have had to figure out how to deal with this issue of parents and children that have a need (or in my case a want) to travel. If you have a planned absence of more than three days, many schools offer an independent study program. This is where the schoolteachers assign work during the absence to allow it to be excused (and therefore the school gets paid as if the student was in school). But a few things to remember:
- You need to apply BEFORE leaving on your program, and with enough time for the teachers to make the work packet.
- The work must be submitted on the day you return from the absence to be excused.
If you are going to take advantage of the Independent Study Program, make sure you are following the rules to ensure that the absence is excused. In addition, following the rules means the teachers and school will trust you more. But also, if a lot of parents don’t follow the rules, your school may cancel the independent study program. That happened at our school and now every time I take the kids out, it’s unexcused. A few bad apples ruined it for everyone. If you are going to take advantage of the Independent Study Program, make sure you are following the rules to ensure that the absence is excused.
Keep it to a Minimum: A student who misses 18 days a school year misses 10% of the school year. Now, I contend that when you are traveling and exploring new places, your kids are learning far more than they’d learn in the classroom. But there is still classroom learning they need to learn, and if you are missing too many days, your kids may fall behind on some core skills that you may not be working on while traveling. I have a rule that the kids are not allowed to miss more than five school days a year for travel. Often, I’ll schedule travel around holidays or professional development days so they are only missing 3 or 4 days of school. In California, all schools have one minimum day, and our charter school has been kind enough to make it Fridays. I try to prioritize missing a Friday over a full day of school to minimize learning loss. You have chosen a traditional educational environment for a reason. Make sure you are prioritizing learning. Travel learning is in addition to, but for me, not in place of public school.
Even though I love travel and dreamed of being a digital nomad, I never once entertained the idea of home school. I know that there are many people who choose that path and I think you as a family need to decide what works for you. For us, neither my husband nor I wanted to teach, and when the children were young, we both had pretty demanding, non-flexible careers. I grew up having some amazing teachers with a seemingly never-ending well of patience. I wanted my kids to have that same experience (I spent a summer as a TA at the Summer Institute for the Gifted and quickly learned that if I didn’t have the patience to help the so called “smart” students who wanted to spend their summer learning, I would never make it in the real world as a teacher). I believe in the benefits of socialization that kids get from traditional school setting, but I’ll admit it has its drawbacks, like all educational situations do. The one is the inflexibility when it comes to attendance. I want to note most teachers understand what I’m doing and work with me. Most administrators do as well, but their hands are tied as the school needs funding and this is how government has chosen to fund public schools. By being proactive, working with your teacher and your student, you too can make these opportunities available and make it a win win for all parties involved.
Edited by SKS