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Back-to-school shopping in uncertain times

A worker stocks shelves of back-to-school supplies at a Target store.
A worker stocks shelves of back-to-school supplies at a Target store in August 2020 in Colma, Calif.
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

This is the Aug. 9 edition of the 8 to 3 newsletter about school, kids and parenting. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox every Monday.

It started with the backpack.

What kind of backpack does a child need for kindergarten? (What do kindergartners even need to cart around?) Can my kid carry the same well-loved Skip Hop knapsack from preschool, or is that too babyish? Should we go 18L or 24? Even the smallest choices seem gargantuan on his skinny frame — how will he carry it the half-mile to school?

Normally, I’m pretty skeptical of “back-to-school” sales, which, like pumpkin spice, sexy Freddy Krueger costumes and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” seem to show up a little sooner every year.

But I’ve stuffed my most recent anxiety into a new backpack because so much else about this year is out of my control. I don’t know which students’ parents are vaccinated, who’s lax about masks, or what we’ll do if my son’s class has to quarantine. The ETA on emergency use authorization for kids’ shots seems to change every time I Google it. And the pediatric data on the Delta variant are maddeningly mixed.

For my family, in-person learning is the only option that makes sense. And while we’re incredibly lucky to have it, we’re still missing out on many of the rituals that make kindergarten special. When it comes to the first day of school, I won’t even be able to walk my baby to his classroom.

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“I’m quite literally trying to wrap my head around how we’re going to do this, we working mamas of tiny little babies,” said fellow incoming-kindergarten mom Xóchitl Flores-Marcial, a history professor at Cal State Northridge. “Under normal circumstances, there’s the excitement of shopping for back to school, and going to the store and collecting your crayons or backpack. But right now, we have to think differently.”

Indeed, a quick skim of wish lists on this year’s #clearthelist threads and local DonorsChoose projects shows just how different the 2021-22 back to school season will be.

If you’re unfamiliar with the genre, these are crowdfunding campaigns in which mega-corporations like Amazon and Target play middle man between modestly philanthropic individuals and public sector employees. This, to me, is only slightly less dystopian than organ transplant projects on GoFundMe.

But I also recognize the necessity. There is a longstanding phenomenon of teachers spending out of pocket for school supplies each fall. And because most local students will go back to campus this month — many for the first time in a year and a half — the need is extra pressing.

Two women listen to another woman speak in a classroom
Dr. Smita Malhotra, left, and Dr. Rosina Franco, middle, listen to Josefina Flores, Euclid Avenue Elementary School principal, speak in a classroom as they answer questions and present the safety preparations at the school on July 26 in Los Angeles.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

“I was visiting school sites, and I was seeing all the teachers coming in with their Target bags, bringing in supplies,” said El Rancho Teachers Assn. President Lilia Carreon. “One of the teachers was saying he bought the materials for his kids because he didn’t know what any of them would have.”

That’s because kids will need a lot more than binders and pencils this year.

Face masks and cleaning supplies are predictably popular. Disinfecting wipes, tissues and hand sanitizer are among the most requested items for L.A. teachers on DonorsChoose, a site representative told me.

But water bottles are also surprisingly in demand.

“The children can’t use drinking fountains,” Flores-Marcial explained. That means each child will need to carry a water bottle — something many teachers requested in bulk, after districts disconnected or dismantled their bubblers in anticipation of reopening last year.

“We shut down all the fountains last year when we thought the kids were going to go back,” Carreon told me. Her district has put in bottle filling stations to replace them, but if you’ve ever bought your child a water bottle, you know how easy they are to lose, and how pricey they can be to replace.

Nor are personal items like masks and water bottles the only things students will need for themselves this year. Many of the supplies we think of as standard, such as counting bears, glue sticks or Mr. Sketch markers, must now be individual.

“Usually you’re teaching the kids how to share, but because of COVID, everyone’s going to have their own items,” Carreon said.

Instead of six packs of crayons, a classroom now needs 24. Ditto math manipulatives, safety scissors and even computers. And while a lot of personal protective equipment and other big-ticket items will come from the district, many smaller materials will fall on teachers and families to provide. The local wish lists I saw included requests for iPad covers, mobile sanitation carts, and musicians’ masks for students in band. I also saw requests for individual dry erase boards, rubber gloves, hanging book bags, and in one case, a mini fridge.

In short, everything but the kitchen sink is going “back to school” this year.

Which brings me back to the backpack. If kids need so much extra stuff to stay safe, does that mean they’ll also need to schlep it? And if so, how? It’s a silly thing to fixate on, but it’s the only part of kindergarten I can see or touch right now. It’s also one of the very few things I can do as a mother to prepare for an experience that feels both inevitable and deeply uncertain.

Or as Flores-Marcial put it: “It’s just so heavy. This [experience] is so, so heavy … because it’s just entirely unknown.”

To mask or not to mask — yes, it’s a question

—There are, of course, parents whose preferred back-to-school gear would NOT include masks. A lot of them live in Orange County, where the county board of education sued Gov. Gavin Newsom last week for mandating masks in classrooms. “It doesn’t matter what a school district wants — it matters what parents want,” board member Ken Williams said. The Times’ Colleen Shalby looked into the dispute.

—Notably, the pushback on masks is coming more from parents than students. That’s because a lot of students are used to wearing masks by now and aren’t that bothered by them, my colleague Melissa Gomez found.

—The headline on Monday’s article by my colleague Howard Blume pretty much says it all: “Delta variant is sucking the joy out of back-to-school 2021.”

—Still, the news isn’t all terrible. Summer school provided a pretty good test to see how risky in-person school will be. And all things considered, it wasn’t that bad, Blume reports.

—Alert: If you’re the parent of a California public school student who wants to change their grades from A-F to pass-fail, the deadline is Aug. 17. The Legislature set a 15-day period starting Aug. 2 for the changes, which are being allowed because of the difficulties students have faced during the pandemic.

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Of toy soldiers, school names and more ...

—If your child plays with toy soldiers, there’s a pretty good chance that child is a boy. We could talk forever about why that is, but one reason is obvious: Toy companies tend to make G.I. Joe, not G.I. JoAnn. That bothered a San Diego Navy veteran, JoAnn Ortloff, so she launched a campaign to get manufacturers to make toy female soldiers. It wasn’t easy, but she ultimately prevailed, which is good news for girls like 6-year-old Vivian Lord of Arkansas, who asked toymakers: “Why do you not make girl Army men? ... I would play with them every day and my friends would to(o).” San Diego Union-Tribune.

—One thing we’ve learned in the past year: Yesterday’s heroes can become today’s pariahs. But the mayor of San Jose isn’t worried about the brand new Dolores Huerta Middle School, named after the famed labor leader. “Who we identify as our heroes says a lot about who we are as a community,” Sam Liccardo said. “I’m pretty confident that Dolores Huerta is going to stand the test of time.” San Jose Mercury News.

—There’s one teacher who won’t be working at Dolores Huerta — or anywhere else. After seven years teaching history and English in the San Francisco school system, Ellen Lathrop is calling it quits. Her essay explaining her decision makes for uncomfortable reading about the challenges facing our schools in an era of “rampant inequality.” San Francisco Chronicle.

—The COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbated by the Delta variant, could lead to a surge in applications for independent study in California schools. EdSource.

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