The back-to-school and fall season is always a bit of a sad time of year in my family, as it is for many other families who love to travel. It signals the end of summer and the freedom that comes with three months to travel whenever and wherever. Our oldest is in fourth grade in a regular public school in California, so we have limited time off to take longer trips during the school year.
We prioritize education in our family, so we don’t like to have my daughter miss very much school. But I’m okay with her missing some on occasion. My job as a travel writer means that some rare trip opportunities do fall in my lap from time-to-time. We are judicious in picking and choosing the trips that are worth skipping a few days of school. After all, travel (even to places like Disney or the beach) can be educational as well.
In fact, as I write this post, I’m on a plane flight returning from a week in Hawaii with my kids. My husband’s brother got married on the Big Island and my kids were part of the wedding party. The kids had to miss at least three full days of school to make the wedding events. So we extended the trip to make it a full week and make the most of the sunk travel costs.
If you are thinking about pulling your child from school for a trip, a lot of considerations are probably swirling through your mind. Is it worth it for the missed academic time? How long is too long? What if my child doesn’t want to miss school? How can I navigate the policies of my child’s school or school district?
We are now in our 5th year of navigating the minefield that is travel during the school year. We have had some successes and a few flops. With that experience, here are my top tips for deciding whether and how to take children out of school for travel.
Tips for Skipping School for Travel
Be Realistic About Your Child’s Academic Status
If your child is struggling in school already, I’d be very cautious about pulling your child out of school for travel at all. It can be hard for kids to catch up from missed days in class, especially with longer absences. There’s little to be gained in traveling during the school year if the result is that it lands your kid in summer school!
The academic implications of missing school also vary greatly depending on your child’s age and grade. While most elementary aged kids can easily catch up from even a week or more, a week-long absence might be next to impossible to navigate for a junior or senior in high school taking a full slate of AP classes. Set some family guidelines but be prepared for these to evolve over time.
Know Your District’s Truancy Policy
Before you pull your child from school for a trip, make sure you understand the legal ramifications you might face for doing so. Some districts and states have very strict truancy rules. I found that out the hard way when I got a truancy notice when my oldest child was in kindergarten – apparently just a mere three unexcused days gets you a nastygram in our district! Additional absences can get you hauled before a truancy board and even (in extreme situations) prosecuted.
If your child is in private school, similar considerations might apply even if you won’t have to answer to a truancy board. Some private schools are much more lenient than their public counterparts, but others can be substantially stricter. Some might not invite kids back in future years if they miss too much school. Still others have policies where work is given a zero grade if a child is out for reasons like travel.
Find Out How to Get Absences Excused If Possible
Every school district in the country seems to have radically different policies about excused absences. In some, a family trip is never grounds upon which to excuse a child. In others, there are strict procedures and processes to follow to have an absence for travel excused. Definitely find out many weeks in advance what rules may apply so you have time to comply.
My daughter’s public school in California only excuses absences for travel that are at least a full week long. In those circumstances, we can apply for an independent study week and get a packet of work from her teacher to complete while away.
Shorter absences for travel, however, can never be excused. I happen to know that a lot of parents in our district call their kids in sick (sickness is an excused absence) when they have to miss a day or two for shorter trips. I’ll plead the 5th as to whether I have. The policy seems entirely academically misguided to me, as it encourages longer absences because those are eligible for independent study. But that’s the system we have, and we have to work within it. (And that’s part of the reason why we decided to take a full week to travel to Hawaii!)
Consider the Full Year’s Calendar
Before I consider pulling my child from school any given day for any particular trip, I make sure I’ve thought about the whole year and the total number of days we are likely to miss. The last thing I want to do is plan a trip that isn’t really worth skipping school for and missing out on better travel opportunities later in the year.
Everyone has a personal maximum they are comfortable with. For me, I don’t like to have my daughter miss any more than about a full week each semester. And ideally, she misses no more than a single week (with maybe an additional Thursday or Friday for a long weekend trip) the entire year. Your personal max may be much more or much less. Whatever yours is, look at trip opportunities within the larger context of the entire school year before making a final decision about a particular trip.
Watch Out for Testing Dates & Extracurriculars
Before booking a trip, make sure you’ve thought about additional school-related and extracurricular conflicts that could make a trip more challenging. There are certain dates and times that can be much more inconvenient for travel. In the spring, for example, our school has state testing starting in the 3rd grade, so missing those dates is highly discouraged by our district.
Similarly, don’t forget to check on the rules or policies of extracurriculars in which your child might be involved. My theater-loving daughter, for example, always participates in a play each semester. The set performance dates take a week each semester off of the table for travel. Additionally, she can only really miss one or two rehearsals, so that limits our travel during the weeks that play practice is in session.
Seek Out School Calendar Opportunities
Conversely, there may be some days that are much better than others for missing school. Look for those! Our school has a lot of minimum (half) days that fall on Fridays throughout the year. I don’t think twice about having our daughter miss one or two of those, since the academic hours missed are so minimal.
We have also had good luck in missing field trip days where there is no work to make up. I also know many families who pull their elementary aged children from school the last few days of the year. Very little teaching tends to be done those days which are usually filled with movie breaks, end-of-year parties, and special events.
Let Your Child Have Input
Last but certainly not least, listen to how your child feels about missing school. Some kids love it while it makes others very anxious.
Ultimately, of course, you are the parent. My husband and I certainly make the final decisions in our family, but we also try to allow our older child to have some input about what trips we take. Increasingly as she gets older, she feels like she is missing out on fun times with her friends back home when we take her away during the school year.
On our most recent Hawaii trip, I heard quite a few complaints about missed a missed walk-a-thon and a field trip she was looking forward to (and yes, I may have responded with a “child, you are in Hawaii – quit complaining”). But her concerns are completely valid too. What she values may not be the same as what my husband and I value. Ultimately, if you want to raise a child who loves travel, sending your child on a lot of perceived forced travel marches isn’t going to do that. Listen to what your kids are saying. Find the right balance that works for the differing personalities and travel preferences in your family.
For more advice from another family travel expert on this topic, check out This Crazy Adventure Called Life’s take on whether you should take kids out of school for vacation.