Shomial Ahmad is a freelance reporter.
Public schools re-opened this week after the mid-winter break but not everyone was back in their seats. Overall attendance rates show a dropoff before and after most school holidays, especially in communities with many new immigrants.
P.S. 161 in Harlem, for one, serves a predominantly Dominican population and often sees its students leave for extended breaks.
“Our students don't leave for just the period of time of the vacation,” says Principal Pamela Price-Haynes who has worked at the school for almost 30 years. “If they leave and go home, they sometimes go for a month, six weeks, maybe three months.”
The cost is hard to quantify; it depends on the child and the school but educators agree it's difficult for children to catch up after long absences. "You're missing out on great literature, writing, and being with friends," Price-Haynes said.
P.S. 161’s third grade teacher Jeannette Toro has one student who will be in the Dominican Republic for most of March because of a family emergency. She’s prepared a packet for him take along, math and reading materials to keep him fresh.
“They're not really in school so then they're not practicing what they've learned,” Toro said. “They forget a lot of things.”
But extended absences are viewed differently at the High School for Language and Innovation in the Bronx. Nikki Rank is a reading and writing teacher there.
“I think it's so important for new immigrants to maintain that connection to their home,” she said. “And if they can afford to go home, I think that's huge for their confidence and for their self-identity.”
Rank had one student who returned to Kosovo for a month during which time Rank had him complete four writing assignments.
The school’s principal, Julie Nariman, said she understands why families leave for extended periods. And, as technology allows for more online learning, she said it's getting easier to continue a student’s learning while abroad.
“I think that's the future, and I think a person's education is not something that just takes place in the school building,” Nariman said.