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No one knows what “back-to-school shopping” means this year

Instead of a new pair of shoes or jeans, students might need masks, hand sanitizer, desk chairs, or headphones.

Back-to-school supplies are displayed at a Target store in San Rafael, California.
With a significant number of students embarking on distance learning this year, parents are looking to buy items like computer monitors, headphones, and desks, compared to traditional school supplies.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Jasmine Nakasoni has put aside about $40 to $50 every month since last August for her daughter’s back-to-school shopping expenses. As members of the debt-free community, she and her wife don’t rely on credit cards, so instead, they budget out for nearly every occasion or event they expect to spend on. This year, the initial plan was to spend $500 on school supplies and new clothes for their 14-year-old, Hayley.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, threw their budget off-kilter, as Nakasoni realized that her daughter would need a desk, headphones, and organizational supplies for at-home learning, instead of the notebooks, pens, and dancewear she originally planned for.

The family attempted to maintain a sense of normalcy by taking Hayley on a socially distanced shopping spree and presenting her with an envelope of cash to spend, as they do every year.

“A lot of things have changed,” Nakasoni told me. “Hayley has to start freshman year and dance team virtually, so we just wanted to keep one thing as close to normal as possible.”

The bustling atmosphere of back-to-school shopping — a tradition shared by many families across the country — has been replaced with reminders to socially distance, to wear masks, and to constantly sanitize surface areas. And in a particularly cash-strapped economy, parents are more cautious with their purchases, while many school districts are in the midst of finalizing teaching plans, possibly delaying school supply and books lists. Yet retailers are financially banking on families showing up: Back-to-school season is the second-biggest retail event of the calendar year, after the winter holidays. The National Retail Federation predicted that in 2020, families with elementary to high school-age kids will spend on average $789.49 this season, compared to a record average of $696.70 in 2019.

These are just estimates: Families are preparing for many different scenarios, which could impact their spending habits. While there is less demand for traditional school supplies, parents and students are increasingly interested in things like computer monitors, headphones, desks, office chairs, and lamps.

However, the impulse to physically embark on a shopping spree still exists, in spite of the possible health risks involved. On Instagram’s #BackToSchoolShopping tag (which is inundated with advertisements), parents are still eagerly posting photos of their masked kids, posing in stores and carrying their latest purchases. Similarly, on YouTube, high school-age, college, and family vloggers are posting “shop with us” videos and back-to-school hauls, featuring products from popular retailers like Walmart, Target, and Amazon. The reality, though, is far from that happy-go-lucky vision: Stores and shoppers don’t know how a pandemic back-to-school season will unfold.

“We’ve undergone big changes but still don’t know what the next two months are going to hold,” the vice president of marketing for the uniform company French Toast told the Washington Post. Students’ needs are changing, and families are increasingly focused on the need for personal protective equipment (if their child is returning to school) or technology (if they’re pursuing distance learning).

One mother of a Minnesota first-grader wrote to me on Facebook saying that she’s “stressed to the gills with distance learning,” and has held off on making purchases until the family has attended a socially distanced “open house” to receive supply lists. “Until now, it’s been the school making sure everyone has [laptop] devices,” she added. In coronavirus hot spots, some parents have entirely shifted to ordering items online, while others — like Nakasoni’s family, who live in Richmond, Virginia — are able to frequent shopping centers and big-box retailers. In recent years, stores like Target and Walmart have attempted to digitize back-to-school shopping, offering one-click shopping options and partnering with certain schools and teachers to make the experience more convenient.

Teachers are actively posting their virtual supply wish lists (often from Amazon) on social media to solicit donations from community members and even strangers. This isn’t surprising, considering how often educators are responsible for purchasing back-to-school supplies and other classroom necessities. As a result of shrinking public school budgets prior to Covid-19, many teachers already rely on online crowdfunding sites, grants, and Amazon wish lists to stock their classrooms if their schools aren’t able to pay for these products.

As Nadra Nittle previously reported for The Goods, teachers frequently pay out-of-pocket expenses — from furniture to books to clothing — for students, especially those in high-poverty areas. Now that they are expected to maintain social distancing and hygienic standards in the classroom, in-person teachers will likely spend more money on items like hand sanitizer, wet wipes, or tissues. In the months leading up the first day of school, many teachers have spoken up about the unclear, fickle policies some states and school districts have adopted: Some worry about being in the classroom in the first place and how, as the adult in the room, they’re responsible for enforcing social distancing and keeping students safe.

Back-to-school season has historically signified a fresh start — not just academically, but fashion-wise as well. It’s a reason to buy more clothes, especially with retailers hosting sales and markdowns throughout the season. This year, though, instead of a new pair of shoes or jeans, students are opting for a better webcam or a pair of headphones. Bella, a 17-year-old from Huntington Beach, California, said she bought a comfortable reading pillow and a laptop tray for the virtual classes she took this summer. “I know friends who have been getting pajama pants and stuff,” she added, saying that she felt there was no need to buy additional clothes.

Still, popular retailers have leaned into broad messaging when it comes to ad campaigns, with the hopes of reaching customers in a variety of school scenarios. Old Navy’s 30-second ad, synchronized to the beat of Lizzo’s “Boys,” addressed the vague nature of the school year with a voiceover saying, “Whatever this year looks like, get fresh looks at Old Navy.” Target has released a series of 15-second spots that highlight how it’s the go-to retailer for all sorts of back-to-school necessities, from jeans to 50-cent school supplies. Home retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Ikea, and Wayfair also have promoted sections on their websites related to “back to school,” with some listing college dorm necessities and decor, even if students’ return to campus has been a fraught experience.

These ads can only do so much to entice families to spend during uncertain times. For Annie, a 16-year-old in Stafford, Virginia, her family skipped over their annual routine of purchasing clothes in the fall, partly because they wanted to save money and aren’t able to try on clothes in public. “We usually get a new pair of shoes for the gym, and my sister and I constantly grow out of our jeans,” she told me. “I was talking to my mom and we were joking about how we’d only need shirts for the Zoom classes.”

Her dad had bought her a laptop in March when her high school transitioned to remote learning, to ensure that the school’s distributed laptops could go to students who weren’t able to afford them. Annie, who considers herself a prolific note-taker, said the only items she felt invested in were her planner and gel pens, which she hopes to use for her notes and to stay organized. “I haven’t bought any binders, highlighters, pens, or loose-leaf paper,” Annie added. “I’m going to be able to store most of my notes virtually on Google Drive or whatnot, and I have some leftover notebooks and pens.”

While she has no qualms about learning from home, there are certain things Annie said she’ll miss, like getting coffee before school, color-coding her planner, or simply sitting in a classroom. Meanwhile, her family won’t be splurging anytime soon until they get a better sense of her school’s timeline next semester. “I’m still hopeful that things will be better by the second semester,” she said. “I really do like working on my computer, but I miss being in a classroom and hearing people talk about a topic in front of me.”