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Resorts to RV parks: Parents take school year on the road

NEW YORK (AP) — In RVs, rental homes and five-star resorts, families untethered by the constraints of physical classrooms for their kids have turned the new school year into an extended summer vacation, some lured by the ailing hotel industry catering to parents with remote learners through “roadschooling” amenities.

With the pandemic ongoing, the change of scene for desperate work- and school-from-home families boils down to “risk versus reward,” said Amanda Poses, a travel consultant and mother of two teenagers in Austin, Texas. “God willing, we don't have the opportunity to do this again.”

Poses and her husband let 13-year-old Addison attend school from Park City, Utah, for three days of a five-night stay in early September. In search of a flight of three hours or less, they rode horses, hiked and zip-lined. They went tubing and enjoyed an alpine slide. And, yes, there was a bit of logging in to school.

“I ended up skipping like half of my classes,” Addison smiled. “It was nice. It was like a new start.” Addison's 16-year-old brother sat out the trip. “He was concerned about being distracted,” mom said.

One of the places the family stayed, the luxury Montage Deer Valley mountain resort, now offers “Montage Academy” for distance learners, complete with an all-day monitored “study hall” and access to virtual tutors. Other hotels are offering on-site tutors and tickets for “field trips” at area attractions.

Anna Khazenzon, a data and learning scientist for the online study platform Quizlet, said the monotony of weeks stuck at home for school on top of six months of pandemic restrictions risks bringing on burnout for distance learners.

But there are dangers lurking in schoolcations as well. “Formal schoolcation programs have the potential to create further achievement gaps between high- and low-income families, and more cost-effective versions should be developed, but overall there are many learning benefits for taking children on schoolcations,” Khazenzon said. “If students are burnt out and under-stimulated studying at home, then they may not be engaged in class at all.”

Jennifer Steele, an associate professor of education at American University, said that if distance learners don't show up for class during schoolcations, “we would expect them to lose some knowledge and skills.” In addition, she said, the idea “exposes socioeconomic inequities in terms of people's inability to leave and go to difference places."

Since the start of the pandemic, families of means have decamped to second homes or taken long-term rentals in vacation spots around the world. With summer over, schoolcations offer others similar experiences, whether they're roughing it on the road for extended periods or spending on hotels and resorts trying to make up for a summer slump.

For Jayson and Tammy Brown, schoolcations for their three kids have been both ongoing and life-affirming over the past five years. The parents and 11-year-old Jayde, 13-year-old Jay'Elle and 14-year-old Jayson are used to traveling the world with school topics in mind, but the pandemic has them avoiding planes.

Before the pandemic, there was a trip to Israel at a time Jay'Elle was studying the Mideast. Young Jayson made science connections between rock formations there and bioluminescent organisms he saw on another adventure.

In South Africa, the family focused on Nelson Mandela, visiting the former prison and military fort Constitution Hill, which has been turned into a history museum on the country's journey to democracy.

The Browns have taken a few road trips within driving distance of home in Atlanta since March, and have more planned. Tammy, a special education teacher, is handling her students remotely. She and her husband make sure their kids log on to school when attendance is required.

“Oh we stay on them for sure,” dad said. What do the kids think they're gaining? “I find it much more fun than school, being able to experience firsthand what I'm actually learning in class,” Jay'Elle said.

Her brother's favorite part of all that travel? “The food, and the animals," he said. The siblings are writing a book about their travels. Terika Haynes, a luxury travel planner in Orlando, Florida, said all of the “school from paradise” packages she's recently spotted guarantee dedicated workspaces for children. Some are adding after-school activities, including sports training for student athletes.

Packages range from seven to 21 days, she said. “It’s a bit too early to capture numbers since these programs are just starting to roll out, but these programs are designed for those with more of a disposable income who are accustomed to luxury,” Haynes said.

In Florida, the Marker Key West Harbor Resort began offering private tutors in mid-September. It has technical support available for kids, and educators to cover local topics, such as the island's literary history and marine life. There have been a handful of reservations so far.

The extras add between $225 and $250 to the room rate, which varies depending on the date and room type. “Family vacations are the new field trip,” said Lee Rekas, the resort's director of sales and marketing. “The virtual learning has been tough for a lot of kids. They're stuck on screens all day or sitting there at home, with their parents over their shoulders, doing work sheets."

Stephanie Gunderson, a stay-at-home mom in southeastern Pennsylvania, plans a two-week trip to North Carolina's Outer Banks in October with her four children — ranging from 5 to 13 — and their school-issued iPads. Her husband will stay behind to work.

They'll be staying in a small cabin close to the beach that they rented at a lower, off-season price. They're packing in their food and will bypass the usual tourist attractions. “We plan primarily to stay in the cabin doing schoolwork. That's the No. 1 priority, for the kids to attend school but then having the late afternoons free to walk on the beach or walk on a trail,” she said.

Breaux Walker and Edie Silver Walker prefer Stormy, the nearly 30-foot RV they bought for $17,000 just before they took off Aug. 8 from home in San Francisco with their sixth-grader and twin first-graders. Logging in to school and homework is mandatory, the parents said.

“We're working our itineraries around WiFi. We're using hot spots on our cell phones a lot,” Silver Walker said from Ennis, Montana, about seven weeks in. Reyne, the 11-year-old doing full days of live instruction, didn't miss a moment when Stormy blew an air hose in the middle of school in a sleet storm north of Helena, Montana, on Interstate 15.

“With her laptop and her headphones, she just hopped up into the tow truck,” Silver Walker laughed. Breaux added: “We're out in the woods every single day after they go to class. They're getting the coolest, most experiential, useful education every day.”

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