Traveling during Spring Break inevitable equates to grossly inflated ticket prices, ridiculously crowded resorts and museums, and plans that need to be made well ahead of time.
That’s why Lilia Arroyo-Barba pulls her kids out of school to go on vacation.
Her priorities: “Work around my husband’s schedule, then it is price, then it is school,” says Arroyo-Barba, who put her first- and fifth-graders in private school so she doesn’t have to give excuses for them missing days.
“My husband travels a lot and every time we can tag along, we do,” she adds. “My fear of missing out is not what happens at school. My fear is to not take advantage of all the moments we have together as a family.”
So far, they’ve been to Mexico, on a Disney cruise and to Las Vegas.
Illinois doesn’t have an official school attendance rule, though schools must provide at least 185 days to insure that students mostly likely will attend 176 of them, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. But technically, a truant student is one who is absent without a valid cause for just one day—or even for a portion of that day.
The question therefore arises, does a vacation count as a valid reason for skipping school? And if so, at what age does that reason lose its validity?
For Victoria Hilton, a former teacher, a parent and the owner of Stepping Stones Nursery School in Logan Square, the only reason you should skip school for a vacation is if it’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip.
When she had a class of 30 students, she’d regularly have someone on vacation every single week.
“It was a huge problem,” Hilton says. “I’d have to help them settle in, and it was really disruptive for the whole class.”
There was always a student falling behind, catching up and figuring out what to do.
According to a 2012 study by Johns Hopkins University, 5 to 7.5 million students are chronically absent, meaning they miss 10 percent of school annually.
And while most people ditch kindergarten for days on the beach or tours of the Tower of London, a study found that chronic absence in kindergarten was associated with lower academic performance in the first grade. That poor attendance in the lower grades influences whether the child can read proficiently by the end of the third grade.
But the vacations can be very alluring. Once she became a parent herself, Hilton had her own vacation dilemma. Her father-in-law died and they planned to make a quick trip back to their hometown in England for the funeral. Instead of opting for a three-day trip, however, the family extended it to 10 days so they could really show their son the country.
“We felt as though the whole trip was beneficial, even though we knew he was missing school,” Hilton says of her first-grader, who toured castles and learned about knights, drawbridges and portcullises during his vacation.
This educational aspect is why Cindy Strom, a former teacher and former school administrator, encourages vacations and takes her kids out of school for them.
“There’s a lot of power in experiences and learning outside of the classroom,” says Strom, who recently moved from Naperville to North Carolina.
In fact, she didn’t even give her students work to do when they went on vacation.
“I always said to parents, ‘Enjoy vacation,’” Strom says. “‘If they’re out of school, they’re out of school. Just enjoy.’”
But, she says, this gets trickier as they get older. While Strom believes that elementary school vacations are typically fine, skipping school in middle school is harder because the work load is greater.
“And by high school, missing too much can have a devastating impact on grades and grade point averages, depending on the individual teacher’s grading policies,” Strom says.
Still, it’s important to think about the positive influence that traveling has on an education, says Margarita Valbuena, a child development specialist and former pre-K teacher in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.
“Seeing other parts of the world or the country, seeing how people live, trying new food, hearing new languages, is what school tries to mimic,” says Valbuena, who has a child in pre-K and one in kindergarten. “Humans learn from experience more than any other way because experience engages all areas of development and all senses. We, as a culture, have lost sight of what it means to learn and to be smart.” Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and mom of two.