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Dispute rages over unexcused school absences for travel

Christoph Hitz for the boston globe

It’s school break time and if your family is among the lucky ones, you’ve already booked airline tickets and lodging to coincide with your children’s time off. But for many families taking a vacation during the official break period comes with significant challenges.

Airlines and hotels charge peak prices, destinations are crowded, and the schedules of other family members may not align with the allotted dates.

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What to do?

“It’s nearly impossible for me to take time off in February; it’s our busiest time of year,” says Paul, a Dorchester father of four. “And who can afford to pay those jacked-up prices? We’ll wait and pull the kids out of school for a few days later in the season.”

“Because of the age difference, our kids were at different schools with different vacation dates for much of their school life,” explains Lori Hogan, mother of two from Portsmouth, R.I. “We had to get creative. We did short three- and four-day trips, missing a day or so of class, but making a lot of wonderful memories.”

Not everyone agrees with those sentiments.

“We’re not educating kids the same way as when I went to school,” says Michele Brooks, an assistant superintendent for the Boston Public Schools. “It’s much more rigorous, and there’s a lot of pressure to perform. So any time a student is out — even one day — it’s a major loss, and puts a child behind.”

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The debate over whether to take kids out of school for travel, family visits, or to take advantage of better pricing and more convenient schedules is a hot topic.

Some parents and teachers say that lengthening a school vacation week by a day or so either prior to the week or after is perhaps not such a big deal — typically children will, after all, have unscheduled interruptions in their school year due to snow days or illness.

But others, like Brooks, say that even a single unnecessary day is too much, and regardless of the length of time involved or whether the absence is around a scheduled break most of the issues remain the same.

Deborah Davis and her 7-year-old daughter, Josephine, pack for a trip to Cleveland at their North Grafton home.

Jackie Ricciardi for the Boston Globe

Deborah Davis and her 7-year-old daughter, Josephine, pack for a trip to Cleveland at their North Grafton home.

“We’re teaching critical thinking, problem solving, understanding and applying concepts,’’ Brooks said. “Parents may think that their kids are young, they’ll catch up, they’re not missing that much, but indeed they are.”

Educators also warn that unlike illness and medical emergencies, absences for travel are typically considered unexcused, and most schools have strict policies on the number of unexcused absences a child is allowed before jeopardizing his or her standing in the school.

Parents who have pulled their children out of school for trips are not deaf to those arguments. But, added to the practical considerations of cost and scheduling, they say the opportunity to see different places, experience new things, and spend quality family time justifies a few unexcused absences.

“It shouldn’t be a regular occurrence to pull your child out of school for a family trip, but it can be a great tool,” says Deborah Davis, mother of a 7-year-old daughter from North Grafton. “If kids are only taught that learning occurs in a classroom, behind a desk with a teacher at the front telling them what to do, it can ultimately limit what they consider learning. We shouldn’t be learning for school, we should be learning for life.’’

Bob Waite, father of three from Brookline, N.H., has taken his children out of school to historic destinations around the country. “My kids describe the history and events they saw in each vacation to this day,’’ he said. “The great history of this country can’t be learned in its full effect without visiting the people and places.”

Christoph Hitz for the Boston Globe

Nancy Bergeron from North Andover took her daughter out of school for a “big trip” to Namibia and Botswana, but acknowledges that not all travel warrants truancy. “We are all for extended family vacations,” she says. “But I don’t think ski trips or a routine warm escape really justify a week or more off. The trip should have some real educational benefit.”

Other parents cite the need for family time, especially today when schedules are jampacked, distractions are plentiful, and family members are often far-flung. “I removed my kids from days at school so they could spend time with relatives who have since passed away,’’ says Robin Falzone, mother of three daughters from Manchester-by-the-Sea. “Life is full of many lessons, not just those taught in the classroom.”

All agree that travel can yield invaluable benefits, but those must be balanced against the costs that come with unexcused absences.

Family experts and teachers warn that missing school can place unhealthy stress on a child; for some students trying to catch up on work, while their peers are moving ahead, can be difficult — particularly as students grow older and the workload becomes heavier and more complex.

“Parents need to ask how it will affect the child academically, socially, and emotionally, and how will the child deal with the stress of catching up on the work and missing school,” advises Karen Ruskin, marriage and family therapist and psychotherapist from Sharon. “You need to consider all other options, not just what is convenient or easier for you as a parent. Ask yourself why you’re considering taking your kids out of their routine, recognizing that routine is very important for the mental and physical wellness of children. Kids do best with structure, routine, consistency, and clear messaging.”

Many parents, even those who have taken their children out of school for travel, point out that playing hooky can send a mixed message about the importance of attendance. “We’ve taken our kids out of school in the past,” says a mother of two from Boston. “Our son didn’t understand why it was OK to skip school for Disney World, but it wasn’t OK to stay home to play in the yard. It’s tough to justify.”

Stephanie Cottrell, a mother of two from Lee, N.H., agrees. “When you pull your kids from school the message being sent is that rules don’t apply to them.”

If you’re considering taking your kids out of class, teachers and family experts offer the follow guidelines: Know your school policy; make sure there are no other options; consider the student’s age, academic standing and ability to make up work, the length of absence, and the timing of the trip (will your child be missing important tests, team sign-ups, important events?), and try to add some educational benefit to their time away from school.

“Any trip can be made into an educational trip with some extra work,” says a first-grade teacher in the Boston Public School district. “A few years ago, a child took a trip to Italy and blogged and did FaceTime with her class while she was there — and kept up with class work. The time away from school was a learning experience for her and the class.’’

Finally, consult with teachers and school officials ahead of time. “I never took my kids out of school for a family trip, but as a teacher I understood that there were times that parents did for good reasons,” says Joanne Pickul Harder from Topsfield. “That said, I always appreciated advance notice so that kids could meet with me ahead of time and keep up with their assignments so they wouldn’t return to school with lots of makeup work.”

Warning: While some teachers are happy to develop study plans and worksheets for their traveling students, it’s not always the case. Some schools prohibit teachers from providing lessons for unexcused absences. It also can place undue and unfair pressure on already harried and time-stressed educators.

“Extended travel is happening more and more in our school district,” Kathleen Frank Young, mother of two and a New Hampshire public school teacher, says. “As a teacher I’m sometimes frustrated when parents take their children out of school and expect us to customize their children’s instruction so they don’t fall behind or fail to meet state standards.”

In the end, it’s parental choice, but it’s clear that the question is fraught.

“We took our kids out of school to go to Disney in October. The sole reason being that it was less expensive and less crowded,” said Meme Kielbasa, a parent and former teacher from Rhode Island. “That said, while I’m guilty, I don’t justify it.”

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.

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