School officials have finally chosen between remote learning, in-person classes or a hybrid of both for this fall. The delay allowed leaders to gather the most up-to-date coronavirus safety guidance.
But the uncertainty has hampered parents' ability to prepare for the school year by stocking up on crayons, cardigans and computers.
Back-to-school shopping is big business. The National Retail Federation's forecast for this year's combined K-12 and college spending is a record $101.6 billion. The Washington-based industry group releases consumer spending survey results before major shopping periods.
Which items parents place in their carts reflect whether their children will be learning at school or at home, according to Jake Cohen, head of product marketing at Klaviyo, a consulting and data firm that works with e-commerce clients.
“In areas where schools are opening, we are seeing higher spending on food, apparel, electronics and beauty/cosmetics – in line with typical spending patterns for back-to-school,” he said in a statement.
“For remote learning, spending on apparel is much less important,” Cohen said. “People are not dressing to impress but are more focused on electronics to make remote learning easier, food and snacks now that all meals will happen at home, and office supplies to mimic an in-person learning environment with class supplies and even crafting materials for younger kids.”
Sara Cooper, a local mother of two, said she was behind on shopping for her sixth grade daughter and ninth grade son.
“Normally, by now, I would have bought a few things,” she said in mid-July.
The family, which lives in the Southwest Allen County Schools district, was given the choice of in-class or at-home instruction. Cooper will send her children to school. She believes her son will do better in his honor classes if he attends in person.
“It felt like that was the best option for them,” she added.
Cooper admitted she's not confident the arrangement will last. Schools could again revert to all remote learning if the coronavirus infection rate increases.
“I feel like they'll be back home sooner rather than later,” she said.
Two-thirds of the consumers Klaviyo surveyed didn't know where their children will be doing their lessons for the 2020-21 school year. The majority of those who responded to the National Retail Federation's questionnaire didn't either.
Matthew Shay, the organization's president and CEO, said parents “know the value of an education and are navigating uncertainty and unknowns so that students are prepared.”
Consumers plan to buy more laptops and computer accessories in anticipation that at least some classes will take place online, the federation said in a news release.
Parents with children in elementary through high school say they plan to spend $789 per family on average, almost $100 more than last year's $697.
Of those families, 63% expect to buy computers and other electronics, up from 54% last year. They expect to spend $274 on electronics on average, up from $203 last year. The $71 difference accounts for the largest share of the overall increase in average spending.
College students and their families expect to spend an average $1,059, which would top last year's projected spending record of $976.
Prosper Insights conducted the survey of 7,481 consumers from July 1 to 8. The margin of error is plus or minus 1.1 percentage points.
Phil Rist, Prosper Insights' executive vice president of strategy, said the coronavirus pandemic is also affecting how consumers shop. They are less likely to comparison shop by visiting multiple stores, he said.
“College shoppers, in particular, may be planning to choose just one or two places to pick up the items they need rather than browsing at multiple locations,” he said in a statement.
Cooper is among those limiting her shopping stops. She takes particular care to limit her potential exposure to the virus because she's regularly in contact with her elderly parents.
“We're trying not to go in stores as much,” she said. “We're buying more online.”
One item – or make that two – that will send the Coopers to the store is shoes. “They're always growing out of their shoes,” she said.
The only unusual item some local parents need to consider adding to their shopping list is a reusable water bottle, said Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for Fort Wayne Community Schools. Drinking fountains will be turned off, but students will have access to bottle-filling stations, she said.
Students might also appreciate other items not on the official school supply lists. For example, those who will participate in lessons at home via tablets or laptops might prefer a wireless mouse, Stockman said.
For those returning to the classroom, FWCS parents don't need to worry about adding facial coverings to school supply lists. The 30,000-student district will provide disposable masks to students daily.
Many of this year's back-to-school shopping lists will include face masks. Local educators are encouraging parents to prepare students to mask up.
SACS will require students and staff to wear masks on buses, in cafeteria lines, hallways and as needed in classrooms. Forgetting or losing the item won't be a problem because the district bought spares, Superintendent Phil Downs said.
Chris Himsel, Northwest Allen County Schools superintendent, suggests that parents turn finding and wearing face masks “into something fun.” For example, one of his children is a “Star Wars” fan, so they will probably get him a “Star Wars”-themed mask.
It's also important to get children used to wearing masks, Himsel said. He admitted that wearing one can be uncomfortable, but said the more he wears one the less it bothers him.
Getting comfortable will be easier, he said, if the mask fits properly. They're not necessarily a one-size-fits-all accessory, especially when dealing with young children.
NACS will require masks in certain instances, which could be different for elementary schools than middle and high schools. But, regardless of age, students will be required to wear face masks on school buses.
About half of the school system's bus drivers are at retirement age, which increases their vulnerability to more serious coronavirus complications, Himsel said.
It's all about reducing the spread, which means fewer COVID-19 cases that result in students needing to be quarantined and schools to be shut down.