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Pandemic back-to-school shopping list: paper, pencils, desk, electronics and, if parents work, a ‘teacher’



PLANO, TX – The parents of 1 million Texas students are procrastinating about back-to-school shopping this year, and who can blame them? They’re waiting for sales and school calendars.

State guidelines issued July 15 say that students can’t come back to classrooms until after Sept. 8, but some will be distance learning for a few weeks before that.

Many working parents are looking for help for those weeks when classes are conducted online, and some are spending hundreds of dollars on day care or tutors to monitor their kids.

That’s money that would normally get spent on traditional school supplies such as clothing and shoes.

With school district plans still being finalized, parents nationwide had only finished 17% of their shopping on average by early July, and more than half said it was because they didn’t know what they’ll need, according to a survey from the National Retail Federation.

Hayley Fielder, a Lake Highlands mother of three students heading into kindergarten, third and fifth grades at Northlake Elementary in Richardson ISD, said she plans to “wait for the sales.”

“I usually buy a week’s worth of new school clothes and incorporate summer clothes that still fit,” Fielder said.

Overall spending for back-to-school is expected to set a record high this year. Nationwide, parents of K-12 students said they plan to spend $789.49, up 13% from what they said last year. College student households said they will spend an average of $1,059.20 on back-to-college gear, up 8% from last year, so total spending is forecast to exceed $100 billion for the first time, according to the retail federation.

It’s not too surprising that 36% of parents with K-12 students said they would buy laptops for the 2020-21 school year, but desks and chairs? About 17% said furniture for students is in their spending plans. So are speakers and headphones, with 22% saying they’ll buy them to help with virtual class time. Parents said they also plan to buy electronic accessories (21%) and printers (17%), a category that’s been lackluster. Deloitte predicts that home printer sales will be up 15% in 2020.

“The kitchen table just wasn’t going to cut it,” said Michele Townes of Plano, who spent $200 on a two-person desk for her two sons who are starting first and third grade.

Townes also bought a large dry-erase board for their daily virtual classroom schedules. Her boys are set up for the five weeks that they’ll be distance learning and any unexpected times that school reverts back home. Virtual classes at Plano ISD start on Aug. 12, and children are scheduled to return to the classroom on Sept. 9.

Some things haven’t changed this year: There will be a tax-free weekend shopping Aug. 7-9, and parents still have teacher supply lists to follow for buying an average of $55 to $70 worth of school supplies.

But the school lists have changed because of the pandemic. Safety is dictating things like plastic pocket folders that can be wiped down rather than paper ones and crayons that twist out of a plastic tube that can be sanitized.

Lists coming in late

TeacherLists compiles the searchable information that major retailers Target, Walmart, Office Depot, OfficeMax and Staples use for classroom supply lists online. The Massachusetts-based company said lists have been coming in late from school districts nationwide, but the pace picked up last week.

“Many are publishing two lists — for home and in school — and the lists are getting longer” because kids won’t be able to share supplies when they’re in a classroom, said Dyanne Griffin, vice president of TeacherLists.

At Weatherford ISD, there are two lists for each grade level, she said. The home list is shorter.

Pre-pandemic, all students shared a bucket of dry erasers in the classroom. Now each student has to buy one and store it in a plastic bag. Kitchen storage bags are a big item on lists this year, Griffin said. “Some lists specify bringing sharpened pencils because they don’t want students to line up at the pencil sharpener.”

In some cases, students don’t have their supplies from last spring because they left school abruptly and didn’t know they weren’t going back, she said. Others were able to retrieve them. At some Richardson ISD elementary schools, workers packed up individual desks into plastic bags so parents could pick them up curbside at designated times last spring.

Reeling retailers

Back-to-school season is generally the second-largest shopping season of the year after Christmas, and stores are still reeling from being closed for two months.

Retailers are still trying to navigate local and state COVID-19-related rules and mask requirements. Now they’re tracking which school districts will open to students and whether universities are online only this fall.

Plano-based J.C. Penney, which counts on the back-to-school season to kick off its second half of the year, is promoting school uniforms at 50% off as it works through bankruptcy reorganization and closes 154 stores. Several apparel retailers that cater to teens and college students are also closing stores, such as Justice, Forever 21, Loft, Lucky Brand Jeans, Express and New York & Co. Even companies that haven’t filed for bankruptcy are closing stores, including Children’s Place and the Gap.

NPD Group said that while back-to-school is the “holiday season” for the office supplies industry, the coronavirus prompted an off-season, springtime surge in traditional supplies as companies and schools sent parents and students home.

Last week, Best Buy said its preliminary second-quarter sales were up 2.5%, and its online sales were up 255% compared with a year ago. Computers, appliances and tablets drove sales.

The Container Store says college students and parents are a big target market, but this year it’s modifying its message.

“We have been closely following the status of college openings around the country and how they plan to conduct their fall semesters,” said Felipe Avila, vice president of marketing at the organization products retailer based in Coppell.

“Our marketing has changed during this time to lean more towards home learning organization solutions, not just for college but for back-to-school in general,” Avila said. “We are shifting our marketing to include ideas to help them make the most out of their homes.”

Parents don’t know whether their children will be sitting in a classroom or in front of a computer in the dining room — or a combination of the two, said Matthew Shay, CEO of the National Retail Federation. “But they do know the value of an education and are navigating uncertainty and unknowns so that students are prepared.”

The federation’s survey results are based on responses from 7,481 consumers polled July 1-July 8 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.1 percentage points.

The pandemic has accelerated trends in retailing that were already in place. NPD has said in recent years that the ritual of back-to-school shopping hasn’t been as exciting as it once was and is lasting longer into the fall. Educational technology spending had also been a priority for some time.

Townes said she isn’t ready to take her boys to a store to try on clothes because of the coronavirus but she’s “not too concerned. I know what they like and can order one size up online.”

She is a coordinator for, an information resource that has 15,000 members on its Facebook page, Plano Moms Talk.

Townes said parents who have full-time jobs are helping each other, seeking out retired teachers and, asking preschools, martial arts schools and gyms for help in patching together virtual school days.

These arrangements can cost $250 a week or more, she said. “Parents who are working are having to shell out $1,000 a month to send their children to public schools.”