Back-to-School Shopping in a Pandemic

Post-its, pencils, and panic


If you look at Target's back-to-school ads, you might not notice anything different in the chipper array of post-its, pencils, and backpacks except for one new item in the lineup: face masks. Still, the whole thing looks pretty business-as-usual.

The parents shopping for those supplies are anything but.

"My 11-year-old just asked me, 'Can I please get a new backpack?' And I just looked at her like, 'What's the point?'" says Vanessa Elias, a parent coach in Wilton, Connecticut. "I think they'll be back [at school] for a very short amount of time." Her district has stated it will only stay open if the local COVID-19 case rate is less than 25 per 100,000. (If it's 10 to 25 per 100,000, the schools will be open on a hybrid schedule.)

Meantime, Vanessa's older daughter is off to her first year at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the COVID rate is exponentially higher. So the Facebook chatter among the parents of new Eckerd freshmen is about which touchless thermometer to buy and whether the kids should be bringing air filters.

Not quite the usual "Does my kid need a mini-fridge?" conversation.

Then, too, Elias has to decide if the family is going to drive her daughter down to Florida. If they do, everyone has to quarantine for two weeks upon return, which means the younger kids would miss the beginning of school. If there is a beginning of school.

Things are really up in the air, and that includes protocol. Jeffrey Cohen, father of a fifth grader in Queens, New York, expected the school to ask parents to send in some basic PPE. Even in normal years, the schools usually ask for Clorox Wipes and paper towels. But on a webinar with 45 parents, the school's principal and PTA president specifically told the parents not to send any of that—and Cohen is trying to figure out why. Although he has not asked the district for an explanation, he thinks it's because they're worried "some parents would go out and buy the crummiest stuff they could find." To avoid sub-standard supplies, the school seems determined to provide all the PPE itself. 

It's no wonder that so many parents feel despair. But for a small, sunny subset of parents, this unprecedented era feels liberating—at least when it comes to school shopping.

"I told my kids last week that I am not buying school supplies or school clothes until I know 100 percent for sure they are going back to school," says Shaylene Haswarey, a mother of 5 outside Portland, Oregon.

Normally she enjoys shopping for fall clothes with the kids, who stretch from eighth grade to community college. But this time around she's enjoying not shopping. "Is it horrible for me to be thankful I can avoid shopping for another few months?"

Not horrible, and not unique. Faith Lersey, a mom of three in L.A. County, always felt a little daunted "by the bright primary colors in the store and all this pressure to get your kids what they need," she says. Lersey homeschools but follows the local public charter curriculum, which requires certain standard supplies. This year, "with nobody knowing what the heck is going on, I feel a sense of permission to go out and get what we need and not feel like I'm a pressurized person slashing through the aisles of Target. Some of that may have to do with the literal spaciousness of the stores now, but mostly it's the mental spaciousness."

What's more, she confides, "Maybe there's something about the unrest of it all that makes me feel excited."

No doubt many parents wish they could share her sense of adventure. But the mother of one New York City high school sophomore summed it up this way: "It's hard to deal with school supplies when you're dealing with your whole educational universe falling apart."