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Back-to-school shopping challenged by COVID-19

Ashley Zlatopolsky
Special to The Detroit News

While COVID-19 continues to change the way Americans budget for everyday life, one of the biggest changes impacting parents with school-aged children is a new way of planning and shopping for back-to-school supplies as kids return to the classroom, either in-person or virtually.

According to a survey of 1,200 parents and teachers conducted by Meijer in late July, the Grand Rapids-based supercenter chain found that while parents plan to spend less on locker decor, backpacks, apparel and shoes, they plan to spend up to $300 for bedroom and student workspace decor — a 66% increase over last year.

Like those surveyed by Meijer, many families are considering remote learning environments as they gather supplies for their children. Some are even budgeting for tutors and coaches, especially parents who work during traditional schooling hours.

Marissa Horbal, 14, left, and her mother Kaitlyn Horbal pose for a photo at their Grosse Ile home, Wednesday, August 26, 2020. The pair said they stocked up on hand sanitizer and wet wipes as well as normal school supplies.

For those returning to the classroom, personal protection equipment (PPE) has become a back-to-school essential for parents purchasing school supplies. Seventy percent of parents expect to buy these items, according to Meijer, a major leap from only 2% last year.

With constant, often last-minute changes coming from schools as they work around ever-evolving COVID-19 data, another challenge parents are facing are sudden shifts in policies that dictate whether their children will be learning remotely or onsite, or both.

These decisions leave some parents scrambling for supplies, and others reluctant to make any major purchases since the supply needs of remote learning and in-person learning vary. In the July survey, Meijer found that more than a third of the parents and teachers were still waiting for learning plans from schools. As a result, they were waiting to start their shopping until there was more clarity regarding the school year.

“People are taking a look at what we call their COVID budget and adjusting it as it goes along,” said Jim Sarver, senior vice president of financial life planning at Lake Trust Credit Union in Brighton. “They’re looking for ways that they can shift money to take advantage of some of the things they may need for school.”

Sarver suggests parents consider new resources for back-to-school shopping and planning that may not have been readily available before. These are the five areas he recommends looking into:

Budget stimulus money for unexpected costs

“We suggest that if (families) get stimulus money, that they put it in their emergency savings account or develop an emergency savings account if they didn’t have one before,” Sarver said. 

This can help families better analyze expenses and have a cushion should unexpected costs arise, such as needing to buy a laptop or iPad for remote classes or extra sanitization supplies for kids returning to in-person learning, he said.

Seek additional help or resources

Sarver suggests keeping an eye out for information schools may send parents that could be overlooked.

“I was talking to one parent and they said, ‘I got a newsletter from the principal of my school every month that I used to sometimes not even read.’ He said now, ‘I read it almost line-by-line because within those newsletters are communications for resources that the school or community has available.’”

Resources could include anything from free tutoring to community-sponsored supplies, so it’s best to contact districts or schools directly for the most up-to-date programs.

Collaborate to share resources and expenses

Kristina Millman-Rinaldi, parent of a child who attends Farmington Hills school district, said she has been collaborating with her community to identify education resources, since her daughter will be learning remotely during the beginning of the school year.

“We recognize that we may need to hire teachers, tutors and coaches, and that definitely takes a bite of the budget,” she explained. “We started looking for a teacher and planning, and got serious about it in June and July. We just know things are different now, different for everyone.”

Mila Neverovich, whose children attend Lake Orion Community Schools, said she has partnered with a neighborhood friend to help oversee their children’s remote learning.

“We both work full-time, so on days that she’s off she’s going to help with my kids, and on days that I’m off I’m going to help with her kids,” Neverovich said.

Sarver has seen many support groups forming within communities. “People are banding together,” he said. 

From retired Michiganians looking for volunteer work, to family units stepping in to help one another (such as grandparents monitoring grandchildren’s education while parents work), local residents are finding creative ways to maximize their children’s learning while being mindful of the current climate, he said.

Prioritize spending 

Neverovich said she has held off on purchasing certain school supplies for her three children. Some schools in her district have maintained the same supply lists they posted earlier in the summer, while other schools have modified their lists as the district shifted to remote learning.

According to Meijer, more than 80% of parents and teachers expect the new normal for their students to be a mixture of virtual and in-person learning. These parents and teachers plan on not completing their school supply lists until decisions are made.

The superchain is forecasting that parents and teachers will adjust, refill and update their supplies multiple times over the coming months.

These constant changes, Neverovich says, create difficulties for both parents and schools to understand what kids will truly need. “Until they send out a game plan for how the learning will be structured and what assignments will be due, we plan on going day-to-day.”

With many school districts going remote, or having the possibility looming overhead, Sarver recommends prioritizing having a stable Wi-Fi connection above all, and then going from there to consider items like laptops, iPads and general supplies.

“If you have a tablet that works, but you don’t have a good Wi-Fi connection, how do you get around that?” he asked. “You might have to go to a central hotspot in order to (learn).”

Keep an emergency fund 

Kaitlyn Horbal, parent of a 14-year-old who attends Grosse Ile Township Schools, said she has put away funding to potentially buy her daughter a new laptop. Horbal said she stocked up on hand sanitizer, wet wipes and the usual school supplies.

 “I keep an emergency fund ready in case we have to switch to online (learning) due to a shutdown,” she said. “Her school works with Google Classroom, so if we have to do virtual, I’ll have to buy her a new laptop.”

Sarver recommends having a plan B and C, especially in the current climate where situations are regularly changing.

 “You need to look at your priority needs and think, ‘What if this disappeared?’ COVID has taught us a lot of things,” he said. “Things are going to change, and you need to anticipate some of those major changes.”