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. Consequently, it is also a time when a lot of parents consider taking kids out of school for vacation so the travel doesn’t have to come to an end.
We prioritize education in our family, so we don’t like to have our kids miss very much school. But I’m okay with my kids missing some school 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.
When I originally published this post (back when both kids were in elementary school), I wrote it on a plane flight returning from a week in Hawaii in October 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 attend all 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 taking your kids out of school for vacation, a lot of considerations are probably swirling through your mind. Is it worth it for the missed academic time? How many days of school can my child miss? 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 10th year of navigating the balancing act that is travel during the school year. Our oldest is starting high school this fall (at a different school than her younger brother) so we have managed this through many different stages and circumstances. Naturally, 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 vacation and other travel experiences.
Tips for Taking Kids Out of School for Vacation and Travel
Be Realistic About Your Child’s Academic Status and Demands
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, even if your kid is in the top of their class.
Set some family guidelines but be prepared for these to evolve over time. Our family’s practices have certainly changed a lot in the last decade.
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 absences gets you a nastygram in our public school 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.
Our kids attended a Catholic school the last couple of years that was very supportive of our reasonable requests for a few days off for travel. So count your lucky stars if you find yourself in this circumstance!
Find Out How to Get Absences Excused If Possible
Every school and 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.
When my daughter attended public elementary school in California, the district only excused absences for travel that were at least a full week long. In those circumstances, we could apply for an independent study week and get a packet of work from her teacher to complete while away.
Shorter absences for travel, however, could never be excused in our district. I happen to know that a lot of parents in our area called their kids in sick (sickness is an excused absence) when they had 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 had, and we had 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. Personally, I haven’t liked to have my kids miss any more than about a full week each semester. And ideally, they miss no more than a single week (with maybe an additional Thursday and 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 to pull your kids out for 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 and sports in which your child might be involved. My theater-loving kids, for example, always participate in a play each semester. The set performance dates take a week each semester off of the table for travel. Additionally, they can only really miss one or two rehearsals, so that limits our travel during the weeks that play practice is in session.
Some club and school sports may be even more strict. Our high schooler is playing JV volleyball this fall. Travel is completely off the table if it conflicts with her game schedule under the rules she agreed to when joining the team.
Seek Out School Calendar Opportunities
While some dates during the school year may be impossible for traveling, there may be some days that are much better than others for missing school. Look for those! Get the school calendars as soon as they become available and put them on your family calendar so you can identify any sweet spots.
Our schools have had a lot of minimum (half) days that fall on Fridays throughout the year. I don’t think twice about having our kids 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.
Now that we have kids in two different schools with two very different calendars, we always look first at our oldest’s school schedule. It’s harder for our daughter to miss high school than it is for our son to miss elementary. So if she has a Monday holiday he doesn’t have, we are more likely to pull him out for a day or two and make the most of her longer weekend.
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 children to have some input about what trips we take. Increasingly as the kids have gotten older, they feel like they are missing out on fun times with friends back home when we take them away during the school year.
On our Hawaii trip a few years ago, I heard quite a few complaints about a missed walk-a-thon and a field trip my daughter was looking forward to (and yes, I may have responded with a “child, you are in Hawaii – quit complaining”).
But kids’ concerns are completely valid too. What our children value 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 a family vacation.