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Chromebook, headphones, desks: COVID-era virtual school supplies come with real spike in spending

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4 days ago Aimee Picchi, Special to USA TODAY
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Back-to-school shopping is looking different for many families this year, thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. With the 73 of the 100 largest U.S. school districts opting for remote learning this fall, backpacks are out – and Bluetooth headphones and Chromebooks are in.

That’s upending the budgets for many families and helps explain why back-to-school spending is set to break a record in 2020. Households with children in kindergarten through 12th grade will spend an average of almost $790 per family this year – a record as well as 13% higher than a year earlier, according to National Retail Federation, a trade group.

a person sitting in front of a computer: This is the virtual school setup Amanda Sorena set up for her twins. © Amanda Sorena This is the virtual school setup Amanda Sorena set up for her twins.

That jibes with the experiences of several families in Houston, the nation’s 9th largest school district, who shared their experiences with USA TODAY. When the city’s schools switched to online learning this spring due to the pandemic, many parents relied on makeshift arrangements, such as turning the dining room table into a workspace.

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Houston’s school year kicked off last week in remote-only instruction.

With remote classes continuing for the majority of America’s children, parents say they are investing in tools to equip their kids for online learning. And that doesn’t always come cheap.

“We probably spent $300 to $400 per kid,” compared with $50 to $60 per child before the pandemic, says Amanda Sorena, 39, a writer and public relations specialist in Houston with a fifth grader and twin second graders. “I knew we could not all work from the dining room table again – crisis schooling was one thing, but we needed to get them set up for more success.”

Sorena says that meant buying desks, chairs and organizational equipment for her children, as well as some tech like Bluetooth headphones to help with communicating in online classes. She also asked friends on social media for tips on what worked and didn’t work for them, since she didn’t want to spend money unnecessarily.

Financial strains are adding to the stress of parenting during the recession, given questions about the safety of in-person schooling and children’s disappointment with missing out on key in-person experiences. The hit to the pocketbook can be dire, with some parents even going into debt to equip their children for remote schooling – as well as feeding them breakfast and lunch each day, Credit Karma found in a recent study.

Parents are more likely than the general U.S. population to say the pandemic is negatively impacting their finances, a new study from Country Financial found.

“Parents in general, when compared with single counterparts, are definitely feeling more of the financial stress from the pandemic, and a lot of it has to do with the back-to-school timeframe,” says Troy Frerichs, vice president of investment services at Country Financial. “There are extra things that people without children aren't having to face, and parents have to account for that in their finances.”

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SHARE: What does your at-home school setup look like? 

Managing school is 'a full-time job'

Some families are making big financial changes to cope with remote school. Take DeLenn Maples, 48, of Houston, who has a 5th grader and 2nd grader. She said she stepped back from her job as a database coordinator while she finished her master’s degree – as well as to help her children manage online school.

“It's just a full-time job,” she says of juggling her children’s different schedules.

At the same time, her family is spending more on school supplies – everything from outdoor equipment to create an at-home version of PE class to online counseling for her kids, since their school doesn’t have a guidance counselor and emotions like sadness can run deep during the pandemic. They’ve cut back on other expenses, such as a housekeeper, and postponed a home renovation to make their budget work.

Just finding the right tools for at-home classrooms can be a struggle. Margaret Pinkston, 49, said local stores were sold out of many office supplies because of families rushing to equip their kids.

“I went to five stores to look for a mouse pad,” she recounts of her search for equipment for her 4th and 6th graders. She estimates her family spent at least $1,500 more this year on new Chromebooks, desks, organizational equipment and more.

Below are tips from families and financial experts on how to cope with the cost of school supplies this year.

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Determine your must-haves

Parents of kids who are remote schooling can probably get away without buying a new backpack this year – as well as some back-to-school clothing. Instead, focus on what your child really needs to succeed, whether that’s a new Chromebook or blue-light filtering glasses, which cuts down on eye strain from staring at a screen all day.

Ask friends for advice and tips

Tap your network of friends on social media for advice on what’s worked for them and what hasn’t, as Sorena mentioned. They also may know of sales and deals on tech that can help you outfit your kids for less. Pinkston notes that bought Chromebooks on sale at a major retailer, and shared the sale information with her friends.

Consider refurbished tech

A refurbished laptop may work just as well but cost a fraction of the price of a new item, experts say. And it may be easier to get your hands on a refurbished computer than a new one, given widespread shortages.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Chromebook, headphones, desks: COVID-era virtual school supplies come with real spike in spending

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