With the pandemic ongoing for more than a year now, over 40 percent of the American workforce is now working remotely. That means that they don’t have to report to an office every day, which opens the door to a cross-country or even cross-continental move. In fact, one in five American adults has either moved or knows someone who moved because of the pandemic.
The option to relocate and work remotely isn’t just limited to rootless digital nomads, though. Families with children, especially children in remote schooling situations, also have the flexibility that they’ve never had before to experience life in a different environment. While this concept of a temporary—or permanent—relocation and a change in schooling is relatively new for some, it’s been the chosen lifestyle for many families for years. Below, several veterans share what they’ve learning about doing school abroad—and what to think about if you’re considering a similar move.
Why take your children out of school?
Giving your children a new environment long-term can open their eyes to a range of new possibilities. When Kazz Regelman took her children out of school in San Francisco for a full year to execute a trip around the globe, her daughters didn’t stop learning. In fact, Regelman is confident they learned more from their lived experiences across Europe and Asia than they ever would have in school.
“We took every educational opportunity—cooking classes in nearly every country, learning about rice farming, natural dyeing of silk, traditional Hmong needlework, scuba diving certifications in Belize, and so much more,” says Regelman. “Not only did they learn new things, they also learned to appreciate the traditions and incredible skill level of the artisans, cooks, and workers in all sorts of jobs around the world.”
Julie Chen, director at U.S. Agency for International Development/Association of Southeast Asian Nations (USAID/ASEAN), has also seen the impact of raising her children in different environments. “They grew up in the developing world so they understand how privileged we are as Americans, and they appreciate diversity and other cultures,” says Chen.
Beyond cultural experiences, a move abroad can bring about a sense of freedom and autonomy after more than a year of uncertainty and lack of control—especially with the strain that the pandemic has put on parents and children this past year. “The change can relieve the monotony that children may have been feeling if they have been learning from home,” says University of Missouri psychologist and researcher Dr. Wendy Reinke. “Also, I think we are all feeling a little stifled and eager for a change of setting, given that many of us have been working from home.”
Location, location, location
Mimi Lichtenstein, owner of Truvay Travel, plans family getaways and gap years for a living. When it comes to deciding where to relocate, she recommends making a list of priorities. It’s easy to get carried away by unrealistic fantasies when dreaming of a relocation, but Lichtenstein emphasizes the importance of breaking down what your everyday life will be like. If you’re planning to be somewhere new for the medium- or long-term there are details to consider that don’t factor in to normal vacation planning. Do you want to take public transportation everywhere you go? Is it important for the children to be on sports teams? Language, cost of living, extracurricular activities, and even transportation infrastructure are important to take into consideration. These all play a role in what kind of environment would be best for your family, they can also help you narrow your focus to a few select destinations.
But as you make a short list, don’t forget about the basics. “The first thing is that you have to make sure you have the criteria to stay in that place for as long as you need,” says Lichtenstein. If you can only get a 90-day visa, that’s going to impact your plans.
An added consideration is the restrictions put in place because of COVID-19. While there are only a handful of countries that are currently open to U.S. citizens, vaccinated travelers have more options as borders begin to open again. Because children under the age of 12 can’t get vaccinated yet, that adds another restriction for certain countries. If you’re traveling with children who haven’t been vaccinated, you may have to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test (as required by Croatia and Seychelles) or quarantine for a week (as required by Iceland). In other countries, such as Mexico, there is no requirement for vaccinations.
Online, in-school, and worldly learning
The decision to do online schooling or in-school learning depends on each family’s unique situation, comfortability, and goals. Although some parents may be concerned about potential disruptions in schooling, children who aren’t in high school yet don’t have to worry about transferring credits or affecting their college potential. If your child is young enough, you may even opt out of school completely for a semester or a year that they can make up later.
If you do want to send your child to a traditional school, Chen, who opted to put her children in an international school abroad when they were in kindergarten and first grade, advises this on how to choose one: “(International schools) vary tremendously in quality,” she says. “But if you are very concerned about ensuring that your children can go to top universities in the U.S. or Europe you need to make sure that the high school that your children attends offers AP or IB (International Baccalaureate) curricula once they get to high school level.”
Imani Bashir, who relocated with her family to Mexico, says that the classroom isn’t the only place for children to learn. “Exploration is an amazing teacher and it’s an invaluable experience. Learning takes many forms and as long as you can provide the basics, you’ll be surprised what your children pick up along their journey.” However, the classroom can be a great way to get language immersion. Bashir’s son picked up Spanish in less than a year thanks to the bilingual international school he’s been attending in Mexico.
Thanks to Karthika Gupta’s children’s remote schooling schedule, she doesn’t see school as a barrier to travel; her family has been able to relocate temporarily from Chicago to other places around the U.S. during the pandemic. “There are so many opportunities for remote school or even homeschooling if that is right for you,” Gupta says. “It does need planning and a lot of prep-work but school on the road is possible especially with younger children.”
For Regelman’s around-the-world trip, her daughters were able to temporarily opt out of school entirely because they were already one year ahead of their peers. “They learned to see the world from different perspectives and found tangible, personal reasons to care deeply about politics, history, economics, culture, and the environment,” says Regelman.
Creating stability in the transition
Once you’ve got your destination and schooling decisions worked out, it’s important to consider how to create a sense of security for your children. While conversations regarding a physical transition can look different depending on your child’s age, there are a few different factors to take into consideration. Dr. Reinke suggests preparing school-age children for a move by talking through the details of the trip and giving attention to what they may miss when they’re away from home.
“This will ensure that children know what to expect and will allow for children to prepare by identifying items from home [to take on the journey] or strategies for staying in touch with friends in advance of the move,” says Dr. Reinke. She also recommends staying in a new place long enough that the whole family establishes daily routines and a sense of belonging.
Gupta says she gives her children the opportunity to help shape what their experiences will look like. “We research places as a family and collectively decide on where to go,” she says. For Regelman, talking about perspective is also key: “We framed it all as an exciting, lucky opportunity, and our girls realized they are very privileged to get to explore different parts of the world,” she says.
And when it comes to financial stability, one of the biggest misconceptions about living abroad with children is that it’s too expensive. Having children is already costly and requires budgeting, but living abroad with them doesn’t necessarily have to add that much more to that budget: Bashir calls it “a matter of working with what you have and not overdoing it.” Still, Regelman admits it’s not something accessible to everyone: “We fully recognize our privilege in being able to pull this off, but we did have to travel creatively—and relatively cheaply—to budget for a whole year without income. To us, that was part of the adventure and actually added to the enjoyment.”
If you feel ready to take the leap into moving your family, it’s helpful to have structures in place that either continue to strengthen your current social ties, or will connect you to other families who have the same mindset for traveling with their children. Bashir recommends joining expat groups to get together with other parents, and Chen affirms that there are ways to socialize in most environments. “There are children in every community,” Chen says.
While parents all have differing opinions on how to give their children a different educational experience, one thing remains the same between them all: exposure to new environments and cultures has made their children more adaptable and understanding global citizens.
“Living and traveling internationally has made our children so much more open to peoples, ideas, foods, political differences, histories, and experiences that are not just like their own,” says Regelman. “It has fundamentally changed who they are in the most wonderful ways. They have a level of independence, confidence, sophistication, and openness I could never have dreamed of at their age.”
As it is with many aspects of parenting, even with the best of planning, things don’t always go according to plan. There is no location you can move to that is free of the heartache or conflict. However, as your family adapts, you may find that you too are becoming just a bit more resilient.
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