Pencils, pens, highlighters, paper, folders: Normally around this time of year, parents and kids would be stocking up on school supplies and scrambling to get ready to return to the classroom.
This year, however, is anything but normal.
In this year of the pandemic, schools and school districts in much of the country are kicking off the year with virtual education, a continuation of (and hopefully improvement upon) some of the remote learning capabilities rolled out in the immediate aftermath of shelter-in-place orders this spring.
Elsewhere, in states such as Texas and Florida, schools are reopening with new rules and regulations — protocols that embrace social distancing yet seriously transform day-to-day experiences for students.
To be clear, stark socioeconomic differences across the country mean that different families have vastly different needs for supplies — some kids need nothing more than headphones to listen to virtual classes on Zoom, while others require basic Wi-Fi, pens and a quiet space in a crowded apartment to work. Still, the needs are real.
We interviewed parents, teachers and administrators for insights about which supplies would be most helpful to the greatest number of kids given the current reality of pandemic-era education in America. Here are some of their suggestions.
Suggestions for a pandemic back-to-school supply list
While Covid-19 has changed the way we socialize, recreate and dine out of the house, it hasn't changed the most basic list of stuff kids need to do school right.
This means parents should stock up on staples such as pens, pencils, crayons, markers, paper, erasers and scissors — both for kids who will be learning from home and for those who will be learning from school.
Ashley Fry, a sixth grade math teacher at West Jackson Middle School in Hoschton, Georgia, recommended that kids who will attend any in-real-life instruction should keep these items in a washable pouch. She knows that sharing likely won't be allowed.
"Middle schoolers are known for forgetting supplies, which is normally fine because they just borrow from each other or from their teacher," she said. "Now, however, it will be potentially dangerous to do so with the current pandemic going on."
The new basics
Two other must-haves for school in 2020: hand sanitizer and face coverings.
While these items are more important for students attending school outside the home, they're important for virtual learners, too, since these kids will spend parts of their days out and about.
Students should buy or make 10 to 15 masks they are comfortable wearing, Fry recommended, so they can have two or three face coverings available every day. That's because masks can get sweaty or dirty, and kids need to have a backup mask, just in case.
"Having (multiple) masks will make it so parents don't have to wash masks each evening," Fry said.
Having masks is one thing; making sure they don't fall off is another. This is particularly an issue for little kids — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that children 2 and older wear masks in settings where it's difficult to practice social distancing.
Lanyards or other cords to keep masks around a child's neck are good solutions to this problem, said Elizabeth Goldman, a fourth grade teacher at Jackson Avenue School in Mineola, New York.
"(A lanyard) keeps the mask close enough and affords easy access in case of any sudden social distance deviation, which is guaranteed with children," Goldman wrote via text message. "It also prevents the mask from falling on the floor and getting dirty, in addition to keeping the mask within (the child's) personal space."
Parents can even leverage the opportunity to spark creativity, Goldman added.
"I would imagine the mask lanyard could also be a means for easing kids' anxieties about wearing masks; they could be decorative and personalized, which basically makes any item fun," she said.
With a significant amount of learning happening online, it's important for students to be able to access the internet from home. This makes connectivity — reliable Wi-Fi or hard-wired Ethernet — a necessity.
The problem? Not all students in America have access to the internet outside of school.
One in five parents said it was likely that their child or children would have to use public Wi-Fi to complete classwork because they didn't have reliable connectivity at home, according to an April 2020 survey by Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C.
The findings were even more salient for lower-income parents, who reported that 40% of their kids would have to use public Wi-Fi, said Monica Anderson, Pew's associate director of research.
"Unfortunately, even in 2020, internet is not a given for everyone," said Anderson, who noted that more than 4,900 respondents participated in the survey.
To solve this dilemma, many schools and school districts are doling out Wi-Fi hotspots to families in need or setting up makeshift access points at various positions in the community. Other institutions are leveraging technologies that would enable students to complete schoolwork on smartphones over the cellular network.
One device per child
Still other schools and school districts are focusing on the devices themselves, equipping students with mobile devices that also are critically important to putting students in the best position to succeed.
Many schools and school districts have programs through which they provide a device to every student for free. Some, however, do not. Lori Lyn is a second grade teacher at Hicks Elementary School in Houston, where every child gets a laptop. She noted that families of students who don't receive free devices from their schools should try everything possible to obtain one for each child to use as his or her own.
Devices such as Kindles, smartphones and many tablets simply don't have the computing power necessary for virtual education, Lyn added.
"We don't want them to be sharing with parents or amongst each other," Lyn explained. "As difficult as it might be for some families to manage, if you're a family with four kids, it's crucial that each kid has their own device."
Tune in by tuning out
Another item that many teachers consider to be a must-have for the coming school year: headphones.
Particularly for students who must endure at least another semester of virtual learning, these tools will enable kids to log on to class sessions, tune out distractions and focus on the lessons at hand.
Mark Kirlough, who teaches engineering at Lower Richland High School in Hopkins, South Carolina, said the headphones don't have to be expensive, so long as they work with the requisite devices and get loud enough to tune out other sounds.
"If you have siblings or if your parents are home working, distractions can be a real problem," he said. "No matter what the situation is in a student's house, (headphones) are one way to help them focus."
A place to work
Families with enough space and resources also may want to consider getting each child a desk.
For Las Vegas resident Stacy Hamilton, a single mother in Las Vegas, this was priority No. 1 for the summer. In the spring, when the city's schools shut down, she set up a work area for her 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son at the kitchen table. Hamilton, who was working from home, used the same spot as her office.
In July, Hamilton purchased a stand-alone desk for her son. She said she plans to put it and a desk for her daughter in a separate room that will effectively become their classroom until they can return to their respective schools.
"I wanted to get something that was functional for the current moment but could then get moved to his room so he can use it for years to come," she said.
List the day
Parents said another strategy for putting at-home learners in a position to succeed is by listing the daily schedule and objectives on a whiteboard or flip-chart paper that is easily visible from wherever students plan to complete their work.
Jill Murphy, a resident of Sonoma County, California, said she deployed this strategy in the spring, and it gave everyone in her family the opportunity to get on the same page about how each day would go.
"We all need to be on the same page regarding when math or humanities Zoom classes are starting versus when we've agreed on video games or outdoor time," said Murphy, who has a 12-year-old son. "Otherwise it's a constant negotiation, particularly when both parents are working and trading off as remote school 'supervisors.'"
Murphy added that her plan for the fall is to buy a whiteboard to hang in the corner of the family room.
Finally, some parents said they are considering purchasing air purifiers to help protect their kids while they learn from home during the coming school year.
These devices work to remove most contaminants from the air in a room.
While none of the tools have been proven to eliminate coronavirus, many of them have received positive ratings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and work to improve overall air quality by a significant percent.
For Dana Freeman, who lives in Burlington, Vermont, any improvement to the air her kids breathe is worth the investment.
"I'm just trying to do everything I can to help protect my kids," said Freeman, who purchased one purifier for each of her children to take to their respective college apartments. "If a portable air purifier helps to keep the air in their rooms a little cleaner, then I am all for it."
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Northern California.