How COVID-19 is changing back-to-school shopping and budgets

Published August 18, 2020 at 8:05 pm


TORONTO — Vonny Sweetland has yet to decide if he will be sending his 12-year-old sister Josephine back to class in September, but just in case he does, he’s been stocking up on supplies for months.

He picks up hand sanitizer when he sees it in stores, grabbed new masks last month, bought a fresh uniform and has been testing out Josephine’s muscle power with some new lunch containers.

The new additions to her backpack and are all part of a wave of changes families — and their wallets — are being confronted with as they prepare for back to school, whether it’s sourcing protective equipment or choosing a thermos their child can open unassisted.

“In a COVID-era, all of these things we take for granted or think are minuscule are actually really important,” said Sweetland, who is his sister’s guardian.

“These are things as simple as a teacher helping you unpack your lunch or zipping a zipper. To prevent potential spread, I don’t think teachers are really going to be doing these things.”

The cost of so many new supplies can easily add up.

A Deloitte survey of 1,200 parents who have at least one child attending school in grades K-12 this fall found the average family will spend $102 on school supplies, $216 on clothing and accessories, $395 on computers and hardware, $316 on electronic gadgets and digital subscriptions.

The survey, which was conducted between May and July, found those families will allocate $61 on a new category: home or health supplies.

Even so, back-to-school shopping doesn’t have to be more expensive than any other year, said Seung Hwan (Mark) Lee, an associate professor of retail management at Ryerson University.

He recommends shoppers compare prices and take advantage of sales.

Anne Marie Taber said she’s noticed plenty of sales, though she hasn’t sought them out when shopping with seven-year-old daughter Avery because she tries to minimize her time in stores and instead use online options with delivery to lessen her exposure to the virus.

She stocked up as soon as she could on Old Navy’s uniform-style clothing because several sizes were out of stock and also grabbed Avery a new backpack.

On top of masks and hand sanitizers, they bought a wide-mouth water bottle without a straw to make cleaning easy, plastic Duo-Tangs that can be wiped down and a set of art supplies that Avery has been reminded not to share.

“This is extra stuff we haven’t had to buy in the past but it’s a small dollar to pay to make sure that that is just hers exclusively,” Taber said.

Parents may also want to consider disposable cutlery, if they have children that bring lunches to school and are worried about germs spreading through anything reuseable, Lee said.

If your child is doing virtual classes, he suggests ensuring you have a reliable laptop or tablet with a webcam.

Those who want to go all out or are older and have specific needs for programs they are enrolled in, may need to think about microphones and speakers too.

Those supplies don’t come cheap. However, the cost of those high-ticket items could be partially offset by a change he sees happening across universities and colleges during the pandemic.

“It’s no longer really about carrying around the heavy textbooks,” he said.

“Many professors aren’t holding lengthy exams because the exams are becoming very difficult to monitor and you can’t really get a proctor to look at how students are conducting their exams… so using test banks or textbooks no longer apply.”

If you’re feeling anxious or stressed about back to school shopping and advertisements are making you feel you better get to a store soon, Lee says not worry.

“I would advise parents right now not to rush into getting supplies,” he said.

“Find out more about what your school district is doing, and then adjust according to that. A deal can always be had.”

Tara Deschamps, The Canadian Press

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