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Parents say COVID-19 school supply costs are mounting

Virtual learning means desks and computers are in greater demand than in the typical back-to-school season.
School supplies in a cubby at Hernando County's Suncoast Elementary on the first day of school last year.
School supplies in a cubby at Hernando County's Suncoast Elementary on the first day of school last year. [ "DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TIMES" | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Aug. 8, 2020

HUDSON — Heather Fawcet didn’t just have to add new necessities like face masks and hand sanitizer to her back-to-school shopping list, the mother of seven suddenly needed a big desk for at-home learning

The Pasco County mom is also on the hunt for a good deal on a computer for virtual classes. Then there’s the usual stuff from folders to highlightersor each child — Fawcet’s children range from one to 17.

School supplies add up every year for Fawcet’s family. But this year, it’s at an all-time high. That’s true for most parents gearing up for the school year.

Back-to-school shoppers, on average, are spending $1,053 each per household on supplies this year, according to a survey by the International Council of Shopping Center. Last year the trade group said that number was around $100 less.

“I’m trying to get everything as cheaply as possible,” said Fawcet, who was looking forward to Florida’s tax-free school shopping weekend, which runs through Sunday evening.

Fawcet said at least two of her children are doing virtual school while others plan to go in person — in Pasco and Pinellas counties, parents and children have the choice to participate in person or virtually. That meant removing a dresser in her children’s bedroom to put in a large wooden table the two could use as a desk for school work. She was able to get it for a good price from a friend who was moving. The same setup up could have easily cost $600 new.

Costumers go in and out of Walmart wearing masks, the retailer is now requiring face coverings to shop inside the stores, on Wednesday, July 15, 2020 in Oldsmar.
Costumers go in and out of Walmart wearing masks, the retailer is now requiring face coverings to shop inside the stores, on Wednesday, July 15, 2020 in Oldsmar. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Fawcet is hoping her brother, an IT professional, will help her find a good deal on a computer. Some of her children who wanted to do school in person are now debating if they want to stay home, too, meaning Fawcet’s supply needs could change — and get even more expensive.

Hillsborough County parents are experiencing that change-up now. The district initially said parents could choose which schooling style they wanted. But Thursday the School Board voted to hold virtual classes for at least the first four weeks, with the possibility of in-person classes being delayed further if the number of COVID-19 infections in the county doesn’t improve.

“We’re prepared meet demand whether that means in home at school or a combination or both,” said Walmart spokesman Casey Staheli.

The mega retailer has made sure it has desk furnishings in stock. It has also put a new focus on virtual learning materials, even uploading workbooks for eat-home learning activities to its website.

Related: Florida’s back-to-school sales tax holiday starts Friday. Here’s what‘s covered.

Nearly 60 percent of the International Council of Shopping Center’s 1,005 survey respondents said they’d be getting electronics this year; 45 percent said they were buying home furnishings.

“This is longer term than we thought it was going to be,” said Stephanie Cegielski, a spokeswoman for the shopping group. “So parents need to make the investment in a space to make it workable so a child isn’t sitting in bed or the kitchen table, but a dedicated space.”

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Cegielski said unlike other years, parents are also extending the period they shop for school supplies because of how quickly things are changing from district to district. They don’t want to spend any money they don’t have to.

Crissy Crockett’s daughter is going into the 10th grade in Hillsborough County and will do virtual school. She got a desk secondhand for $65, but shelled out $73 for a new desk chair. Crocket wanted it to be comfortable, but not one that could spin — she knew her daughter would just distract herself that way. Crockett still wanted the space to be appealing, splurging on figurines and other decor.

“A lot of my focus was on making her desk inviting so she would be excited about using it,” Crockett said. “She’s doing virtual school reluctantly and I want to do everything I can to make it a positive experience.”

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