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As school districts juggle their reopening plans and families scramble to adjust to the uncertainty, retailers are rolling out products and shopping options to help them prepare.
Kids’ masks, cleaning supplies and online learning tools are among the new items on shopping lists for a back-to-school season shaped by the pandemic. But not all of them will be covered under Florida’s back-to-school sales tax holiday, which starts Friday and runs through Sunday. (See the full list of exempt items)
Under legislation approved in the spring, the holiday will offer tax relief on clothing, footwear and backpacks costing $60 or less; school supplies costing $15 or less; and the first $1,000 of the sales tax price for personal computers or personal computer accessories. The state confirmed Monday that cloth and surgical masks will qualify for the tax break this weekend.
Staples said it is “prioritizing deals on supplies for remote learning,” including items such as technology and furniture. It’s also offering a variety of personal protective products — from masks to hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes — along with printing services for students without access to printers.
Target is offering kid-sized masks from brands Cat & Jack and Universal Thread, both online and in stores. The retailer soon will launch other styles from Goodfellow & Co.
Parents can also find colorful mask designs at local stores. Elizabeth Carson Racker began making masks in March, and has since sold 2,000 of them for adults and kids. Her Elizabeth Carson Racker Designs is home to Queen’s Fabric in Tampa.
Carson Racker has been designing for more than 11 years and purchased Queen’s Fabric in 2018. The company has made kids’ masks featuring everything from Disney characters to unicorns to superheroes and sports themes.
“The kids love it,” she said. “They kind of think it’s fun in a way.”
She said one of the most satisfying parts of making personal protective equipment has been helping keep kids healthy through her work.
“Just knowing that they’re safe and secure is just an added bonus of what I do,” she said.
Another Tampa store, Marcela Gifts, is also producing masks for kids. Co-owner Claudia Boggio said the company initially donated masks to health care centers and partnered with The Mask Project Tampa Bay. After getting requests to sell masks, the company started producing them commercially.
“The fact that people are recognizing us and seeing what we do, that makes me so proud,” Boggio said.
The company, which was founded by Boggio’s mom in the 1980s, has sold nearly 1,500 masks since April, about 200 of which were made for kids. Many use fabric featured in some of the store’s other children’s products.
“Each mask is handmade by us and so it does take time,” she said.
Local vendors are also offering school supplies for students preparing to return to school both online and in person.
Gigi Best-Richardson owns Best Richardson African Diaspora Literature and Culture Museum with her husband, Skip Richardson. She said their book shop has seen increased business since school shifted online in the spring.
“A lot of people are homeschooling,” she said.
While the store is open Thursday through Saturday, Best-Richardson said customers can also order online to have books shipped to them or request to pick up books in person.
Tombolo Books, in St. Petersburg, is selling colored pencils and notebooks, which store owner Alsace Walentine said will be included in the tax holiday savings. The shop is adjusting to promote social distancing, with contactless pick-up options and in-store shopping by appointment.
Large retailers also will offer socially distant shopping options for parents. At Walmart, parents can use contactless pick-up for certain school supplies, and the chain said it has an express service offering delivery within two hours, depending on a customer’s location. Online orders over $35 also may be eligible for free next-day or two-day delivery, the company said.
Bethanie Nonami, CEO of the Tampa-based marketing and tech firm Marley Nonami, said companies can help during the pandemic by focusing on ways their products can promote kids’ health and safety when their parents aren’t around to remind them to use hand sanitizer or wash their hands.
“There’s gaps we don’t even know about yet,” she said, adding that stores should focus on creative solutions to these issues.
In a normal year, companies would be focused on traditional back-to-school messaging at this point in the summer. But many are still figuring out their marketing strategies as they address pandemic-era challenges, Nonami said.
“We’re not even there now,” she said. “Everything’s changed.”
Times staff writer Sara DiNatale contributed to this report.
More back-to-school coverage
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VIRTUAL CHALLENGE: Many kids will be learning remotely again. What we learned last spring.
FREE ADVICE: Nine tips for starting school during a pandemic
BY THE NUMBERS: Tampa Bay school districts at a glance for 2020-21
STRESS REDUCTION: Talk openly to your kids about school and the pandemic, experts say
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