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How Much Parents Spent On Back-To-School 2020, From In-Person To Remote

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Every year around the middle of August an email or note arrives instructing parents about what to purchase for the coming school year. The obligatory pencils and paper are almost always included, but this year the list looked a little different. With the 2020 school year upended by the pandemic and every state and county operating differently — some hybrid, some in-person, many families opting for home school — the range of necessary student school supplies changed overnight. But how much did that affect parents' pocketbooks? Here's what real parents spent on back to school this year.

Nearly two-thirds of the respondents said they spent money this year on at-home learning tools: think computers, headphones, and desks. Others were fortunate enough to have their school districts offer some resources; for instance, iPads. But that wasn’t the case everywhere, showcasing the wild divide in learning situations across the country this year. Some parents opted to take the money they'd typically spend on new school clothes and put it towards supplies since their kids will be learning from home (probably wearing some cozy sweats, if not outright pajamas), while others managed to not spend a penny at all thanks to stockpiled papers and notebooks from past years.

1. Ruth

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Mother of 3 (Pre-k, Grades 1 and 3)

Two in virtual school

Spent: $600 each on oldest children

“The school district where I reside decided to start the year off virtually. I therefore had to purchase items to accommodate remote learning: Chromebooks, headphones, desks, etc.,” says Ruth. “I also purchased additional items in anticipation of a complete shutdown this winter.”

2. Jenna

Mother of 2 (Kindergarten and one not in school yet)

Homeschool

Spent: $300

For Jenna, when the pandemic altered plans for the start of her five-year-old’s kindergarten year she decided to homeschool instead. That meant buying all the tools she’d need to teach from home, she says, like a printer, a lesson planner, flash cards, work books, and arts and crafts materials, a $300 investment. That’s not to mention the science kits she plans to buy later this year.

3. Amina

Mother of 1 (3rd grade)

Virtual distance learning

Spent: $12

“My kid's school PTA has a school supply fundraiser where you buy a kit online, it's usually around $75 and includes everything,” says Amina. But she didn't buy the kit this year for her son since nearly all of it is used in the classroom. “This year I spent $12, and $9 of it was on a plastic file box to hold school supplies so he could take the file room with him when he went to school in various rooms. My husband gave him his old chair and is buying a new one for himself.”

4. Kathy

Mother of 3 (Grades 1, 3, 7)

All attending hybrid programs

Spent: $700 total on all three children

“We had to buy two computers, my older son already had one,” says Kathy. “Our school had a form to fill out for computers but asked that you only ask for one if you really couldn't afford it because they didn't have many. Since we could afford it, we didn't sign up. Our school is a Title 1 school in a poor district, about 75% I think of the kids live below the poverty line.”

5. Danna

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Mother of 1 (Preschool)

Attending in-person program

Spent: $150

“My son went back to preschool, but I don’t know how long it will last, so I bought a bunch of school supplies for our home in case we surge as well as a few teaching toys related to learning the Alphabet,” says Danna. “Since my son is required to wear a mask in school I had to buy quite a few masks — $3 per mask from Carters x 15 masks since he goes through 3 per day and it’s hard to wash them each time. I also bought wet bags for the masks, one for clean and one for dirty, and the usual lunch box, lunch bag, and thermos.”

6. Laura

Mother of 4 (Grades 2 and 10, plus a pair of twins; one in their freshman year of college, the other taking a gap year)

Attending virtual distance learning programs

Spent: $0

“I typically keep a large Rubbermaid bin of notebooks, looseleaf paper, pencils, crayon boxes, etc. that I will buy when I see them on sale. I am super cheap and refuse to spend a lot on supplies though I make sure the kids look good and have supplies they like i.e. a spiral notebook cover they like but they are easy about that stuff. They have used the same backpacks and reusable lunch totes for years and they are still in excellent shape after being washed frequently,” she says. In addition, instead of buying one, her husband build a wooden desk for her youngest to use.

7. Ashley

Mother of 2 (Preschool and Grade 1)

One attending in-person and one remote

Spent: $100 each

“We definitely spent more on school supplies and preparation this year,” says Ashley. “We're lucky that we have space in our home for a dedicated learning area that we could outfit in a way that would (hopefully!) help our first-grader get excited about distance learning. We ended up purchasing a small desk and stool, and also a small cart to attempt to organize all of his school supplies. The cart has come in especially handy since we can stash it in a closet after he's done with classes for the day so his 2-year-old brother doesn't get into the markers and glue and whatnot.”

8. Mary Beth

Mother of two (Pre-K and Kindergarten)

Attending in-person

Spent: $150 each

"The $150 was an estimate for my son, who is attending a Waldorf preschool three mornings a week," says Mary Beth. To her surprise, the school required a lengthy supply list of "specific, costly and difficult-to-obtain items" including: a child-sized wooden hairbrush, a pair of comfortable, lightweight soled slippers, a set of one-piece rain gear, waterproof/insulated mittens, two bottles of specific brands of environmentally-conscious all purpose cleaner, environmentally-friendly facial tissue and paper towels. The children are also required to wear insulated boots daily (they recommended BOGS, which retail for $50+)."

9. Anne

Mother of 2 (one infant and one in Pre-K)

In school full-time

Spent: $288.33

"I spent $281.33 on back-to-school supplies which includes a new backpack, pencil box, and other basic school supplies, disposable face masks (for those just-in-case moments), bunny slippers (the students change into house slippers inside the classroom), a thermometer to keep in the car (parents must take and submit their child's temperature before drop off), a lunchbox, and a few bento box options," says Anne. "I also bought some crafting supplies (beads, clasps, and needles) to make a mask lanyard and a fleet of cloth face masks for my child. This way we don't have to stress about doing laundry daily."

10. Jackie

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Mother of 3 (Pre-k, 3rd and 7th)

Virtual learning

Spent: $50 on each

"Instead of new clothes and school supplies, the kids get to wear their too-short pants and cozy shirts with holes, and we are re-using half-used notebooks from last year," says Jackie. "We ended up buying each kid a desk and chair! So, maybe net-neutral?! But, at least they will get to use their desks and chairs for years to come, versus pants that they outgrow in two months and pencils that end up getting lost."