Should You Take the Kids Out of School to Travel?

by Melanie Haiken
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Family vacation time tends to synch with school vacation time for most families, but every once in a while, that setup becomes just a little too limiting. Whether you want to take your kids on the trip of a lifetime or you're looking to attend a far-flung family reunion, sometimes you want to go for longer than the one or two weeks that school breaks allow. Perhaps your child's school is on a year-round calendar, or summers are booked up with summer school. Or maybe you simply want to take advantage of lower prices, smaller crowds, and more hospitable temperatures once you get to your destination.

In any case, here's the conundrum: Is it okay to pull your children out of school for a week, or two, or three, to take a trip that's important to you as a family? Here are some pros and cons to think about when making this tricky decision.

Pros:

  • It's possible to take longer trips.
  • You can avoid jacked-up holiday and vacation fares.
  • Prices and availability of lodging can be much better in the low season.
  • You can plan your visit to take advantage of optimum weather, seasonal beauty, and viewing opportunities for wildlife.
  • Fewer other tourists make your visit a more "authentic" experience.

Cons:

  • Your child may miss important lessons and/or tests at school.
  • Students return to school behind on homework and projects.
  • You run the risk of missed lessons affecting test score.
  • Teachers may be upset, perceiving parent as less supportive of education.
  • Your child may regret missing out on school, social, and sports events.

Planning around events or school lessons that are important to your child is one thing, but what do their teachers, say? After all, they've seen every variation on this type of situation, and then some. As it turns out, most teachers are tolerant, even supportive of opportunities for their students to travel, as long as parents take careful steps to minimize the impact on their child's education, and on the classroom he or she will be leaving behind.

"My greatest concern about children missing school to vacation with family is the amount of pressure this places on the child, as most school policy doesn't allow students to make up work unless the absence is due to illness," says Katherine Palmer-Collins, a fifth grade teacher in Orinda, California.

It's important to note that it's much easier to take younger kids out of school; once kids enter middle school or junior high, policies are tighter and workloads are heavier. And if your kids are in high school, you'll really have to think carefully about the impact on their grades of missing classes and getting behind on work.

One important tip: Most colleges don't count freshman grades in their assessments of potential students, so if your family really needs to take an important trip that will pull a high schooler out of school, try to do it in his freshman year.

Do Your Homework

If you decide your travel plans warrant a hiatus from school, here are some strategies to consider.

  • Ask about your school's independent study policy. Many schools offer an independent study contract, usually for absences of greater than five days. Setting up independent study is a good idea for longer trips, because it helps kids stay on top of schoolwork and relieves the pressure and anxiety of kids' feeling they're going to come back way behind. Independent study is not offered in all schools and all districts, however, and is rarely available at the high school level.
  • Thank teachers for independent study. One reason some schools and teachers won't give independent study? It's a lot of work for them to organize, prepare and supervise. So if your child's teacher goes this extra mile, be sure and send a thank you card and small gift to acknowledge your appreciation.
  • Find out whether absences impact school funding. Schools and school districts receive their per-pupil funding according to different formulas, so it's important to ask the attendance office about the fiscal impact your child's absence will have. and to take steps to minimize any loss.
  • A white lie may be acceptable if it's to the benefit of all. As to the touchy subject of whether a parent should tell the truth about an absence or attribute it to illness, it may depend on the situation. In many districts, funding depends on attendance, so a school loses money for every unexcused absence. In these cases, a "don't ask, don't tell" policy may be understandable. "I have, on occasion, interrupted a parent's lengthy story about why she had to pull her child from class to say how sorry I am that her child was ill," Palmer-Collins says, adding "Most parents take the hint!"

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