Back to school season means shopping for supplies, getting new shoes, and transferring dates from the school calendar to your family calendar. But what do you do when you see that school is in session when you were hoping to take the kids on family vacation?
There are many compelling reasons to take kids out of school to travel, from saving money (travel tends to be most expensive during key school break times) to scheduling considerations (family wedding in London? Seems a waste to not bring the kids, see the sights, and maybe hit up Paris too!). But, there also are educational and even legal ramifications to missing instructional classroom time. People have strong opinions that go both ways, and every family has to decide for themselves. If you’ve been struggling with whether to stay home or pack your bags, here are four things to keep in mind before you decide.
1. Find Out If You’re Breaking the Law
School officials point to research, including this study by the Department of Education, showing a strong link between attendance and success in the classroom, and that chronically absent students are at risk of falling behind. That research underpins state laws regarding student attendance.
The Illinois State Board of Education “encourages parents, caregivers, and schools to support students’ attendance every day,” says spokeswoman Jackie Matthews, noting those studies. States do more than encourage and have passed laws regarding student absences.
In Illinois, state law says illness, a death in the family, or religious holidays are “valid causes” for school absence, and students are considered a “habitual truant” if they miss five percent of the prior 180 regular attendance days, or nine days. “Chronic absence” is defined as having absences that total 10 percent or more of school days of the most recent academic school year.
The Illinois State Board of Education allows school districts to determine how they will handle absences for reasons other than “valid causes.” We spoke with dozens of parents and they reported a wide range of responses by school administrators, and sometimes responses vary by buildings within a district.
“Each school has an attendance team who reviews student attendance trends and works with students and their families to resolve whatever issues are keeping them from being in school,” says Nancy Voise, assistant superintendent of secondary education at Naperville Community School District 203.
“We take school attendance seriously as we know the impact this has on student performance,” says Voise. “If children aren’t in school they aren’t learning. Reducing chronic absences can help close achievement gaps.”
Other states offer alternatives for parents who travel. In California, for example, the Education Code allows parents to request and sign contracts for independent study packets if a child will miss five or more days due to travel or vacation. It allows students to keep up on work and ensures that the state gets funding for that child even if they aren’t present in the classroom because of a trip.
2. Consider the Educational Impact
While learning can and often does occur on vacation, there are still consequences to missing instructional time, says Hedy Nai-Lin Chang, executive director at Attendance Works, a nonprofit headquartered in San Francisco that works with states throughout the country to advance student success and reduce equity gaps by reducing chronic absence.
Students also miss out on social interaction and the sense that they are part of a community, which Richards notes can be difficult at different times of the academic year, particularly in the first weeks of school.
“If you can avoid taking vacation while your child is in school, avoid it. But sometimes there are circumstances that make it unavoidable and when that’s the case, be intentional about it,” says Chang.
Richards says that as much as she loves to travel, moderation is key when it comes to missing school. “I didn’t take my kids out of school for months at a time. I would combine three days with a weekend on occasion,” she explains, adding, “Missing school shouldn’t be the norm. If that’s the case, then you should be home schooling or road schooling.”
Chang agrees and suggests that parents explain that vacation is unusual time and set clear expectations for the child about jumping back into the routine schedule upon return.
Make sure you know what will and won’t be excused. Some parents have noted that despite receiving a positive response from an administrator, they still found — to their surprise — that their child’s absence was unexcused or work was not allowed to be made up. “You don’t want to go on a great trip if it means your kid won’t get credit for a class,” says Richards.
3. Evaluate Your Child’s Individual Needs
Even if your school’s policies make family travel during the school year possible, it’s not always a good idea for every student.
There is no right or wrong answer for everyone because it really depends on each individual child and their needs, according to Julianne Neely, founder and therapist at Individual and Family Connection in Chicago.
“It really depends on the kid,” she says.
She notes that for some children, especially those feeling disconnected from their parents, time away together can be helpful and make kids better able to cope at school when they return. Chang agrees, noting that there are times when “a kid just needs a good dose of grandma, which can ground them in their culture and that will help motivate them.”
Not every child, however, comes back from a trip motivated. “For kiddos who struggle with anxiety or ADHD, sometimes being out of school and coming back to increased workload or make-up work is too much for them. It can send them into panic mode and can really set them back,” explains Neely.
“You need to know how your child is doing academically and understand when you’re leaving what kind of instruction they will be missing. If your kid is struggling in a subject, and you’re going on an optional vacation, that’s not a good idea. If you’re going anyway, make sure you know how you’ll help them make up that time,” advises Chang, noting that academic problems can snowball when future material builds on prior lessons.
Richards regularly took her two children out of school for trips in elementary school, but did so less often in middle and high school as work became harder to make up.
Peers also become more important as kids age. Richards planned a trip to Hawaii that meant her daughter would miss the final days of eighth grade. She was surprised when her daughter expressed dismay at missing the year-end events. The trip was ultimately a success, but it’s good to remember when trip planning that kids begin to prioritize time with peers as they reach adolescence.
4. Respect the Teacher
Some teachers are fine with students missing school, whereas others object. “I never got any push back from teachers in elementary school,” says Richards. Not all teachers, however, are so accommodating.
Parents should be respectful of the teacher and aware of the impact their child’s absence has on them and their class. “When you take your child out of school, the teacher has to help your child. Parents need to be very conscious that we’re adding to their responsibilities,” says Chang.
Parents should talk with teachers and give them as much advance notice as possible. Ask how they wish to handle missed work. Some have work ready before the child departs, other districts have policies that work will not be given in advance. Ask if there’s a way for the vacation to contribute to what the child is learning. In addition to connecting the trip to the existing curriculum, Chang suggests asking if the child can do a presentation on what they learned and engage their classmates.
“If we want our kids to succeed, we need to make sure that they are present to learn from the resources around them,” says Chang. “Usually that’s in school, but if it isn’t, then we as parents have to figure out how to balance and integrate it and be intentional about it.”
More from Make It Better:
- 8 of the Best STEM Toys to Help Kids Learn While They Play
- 5 Life-Changing Family Vacations to Take With Your Kids Now
- 5 Ways to Help Your Kids Take Charge of Their Mental Health
Shannan Younger is a writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. Originally from Ohio, she received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and her work has been featured on a wide range of websites, from the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshop to the BBC. She also blogs about parenting at Between Us Parents.
Shannan is the Illinois Champion Leader for [email protected], a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that supports vaccination efforts in developing countries to ensure life-saving vaccines reach the hardest to reach children. “Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries and I’d love nothing more than to see diseases eradicated,” Shannan says. “We are so close to getting rid of polio for good!”