Back to School? THE School Supply Guide for 2020

Back to School Shopping Guide for 2020

"So, are we buying clothes or pajamas for the 2020-2021 school year?" the masked woman tiredly asked her friend, who was also masked and was sitting six feet away from her, outside, at a plastic-covered, frequently sanitized table at the local café. In years past, they may have seemed to make up a comical, overly descriptive scene of two germophobic, paranoid mom friends having coffee. Right now, however, this is our reality. The only thing that's certain about the upcoming school year is that how and when it will happen is still uncertain! That being said, parents still need to begin preparing their children for school this fall, and a huge part of that preparation includes back-to-school shopping. But where do parents start? What do students need as they prepare to return to school? What should your back-to-school shopping list for 2020 include?

Step 1: Stay Safe

Regardless of whether you opt to homeschool or your district chooses a distance learning or hybrid learning (some in-person instruction and some distance learning) approach, health and safety are still at the forefront of everyone's minds. Across the country, school districts that would normally be busy finalizing new curriculum purchases and talking with educational vendors are instead negotiating with medical suppliers as their lists of supplies needed to keep students safe continue to grow. Safety items, therefore, should be at the top of your list too.


Most public-school districts that have begun releasing their tentative reopening plans for fall are all stating that students, teachers, and staff will need to wear masks. While some children may already be used to wearing masks for trips to the store or a walk around the neighborhood, if your children are not already comfortable wearing one, now is the time to help them get comfortable with it.If we're honest, while it's always a little exciting, the start of a new school year is also always a little unnerving. Students are headed into new classrooms, with new teachers and new classmates, and asked to learn new routines. In addition, this year, we are asking them to do all of that while wearing a face covering. As the parent, your enthusiasm, encouragement, and positive attitude about mask-wearing will go a long way in helping your child adjust to this new expectation. If your child is hearing you constantly complain about wearing a mask, they most likely will complain about wearing a mask also. That being said, do your best to make wearing a mask an adventure. Allow your child to have some ownership in picking out a handful of reusable masks that he or she can wear during the school year. A variety of patterns and sizes are now available in many stores and online. You and your child also may enjoy making a few masks at home! You can find easy-to-follow online tutorial videos teaching you how to sew a breathable mask that doesn't touch your nose or mouth or how to make a mask out of an old T-shirt. Allow your child's face mask to be an expression of their personality. Maybe they want to decorate each mask with different colors. Perhaps they want to buy fabric that represents their favorite sport. When we approach this the right way, children can see wearing masks as an exciting addition to the school day. In many ways, it's like living the Halloween parade all year long!


Anyone who's ever spent two minutes hanging out with a handful of kids likely has witnessed the nose wipe (and maybe the nose pick!), the wet cough landing smack in the middle of their hands (or right out into the open air), and enough dirt under their fingernails to grow a garden. In years past, children could be reminded of the importance of hygiene, but this year, a reminder isn't enough! Hygiene and health go hand in hand. As you prepare your child to head back to school, it's imperative that they understand the importance of washing their hands frequently, coughing into their elbow, and avoiding touching their face. Be sure to add hand sanitizer to your list of school supplies. It will be helpful to buy a few bottles to donate to the class's supply, but you may also want to consider buying individual-sized bottles that your child can attach to their backpack and use often. If supplies are limited, make your own sanitizer, and bottle it up in portable toiletry travel bottles that your children can take with them wherever they go.

Step 2: Stay Simple

The one thing we know for sure is that this year will not be like those we've had in the past. Gone are the days (at least temporarily!) of shared school supplies, tubs filled with crayons that students all reach for, or cubbies filled with scissors, markers, and pencils. This year, most parents will find it necessary to send their students to school with all of the supplies they will personally need. It may feel overwhelming or impossible to provide your children with everything they will need for the year unless you keep the supply list fairly simple. This year is as good a time as any to teach children about needs vs. wants. What does your child need?

Pencils - Children of all ages will need several pencils. Presharpened ones may be the easiest way to ensure fewer trips to the community sharpener are needed, but they aren't a necessity.

Colored pencils and crayons - All students also will need some coloring utensils. These will be used for worksheets and projects in the younger grades, as well as annotating text for older students. The traditional colors of the rainbow are always helpful, but did you know you can also get multicultural crayons? This is a powerful way to help students draw pictures of people who look like them.

Erasers - The magic of learning is in the mistakes! Make sure your child has one or two erasers they can use in addition to the ones on top of their pencils. These are often easier to use and last a lot longer.

Pencil Box or Pouch - This will be key this year as your child will need a place to store all of his or her supplies. A hard-plastic box may be easier to wipe down and clean, but a fabric pouch may be easier to transport, so allow your child to choose what they prefer.

Scissors - Grab a pair of developmentally appropriate scissors. A pair with a cover for the blade may be helpful as the scissors will be stored in the supply box with all of your child's pencils, crayons, etc. We don't want the blades of the scissors to accidentally pinch their skin while they're busy digging for their favorite color crayon!

Notebook - Students may be using individual notebooks more this year than in years past. Rather than passing papers up to the front of the room (imagine thirty hands all touching the same pieces of paper as it gets passed forward. Yikes!), students may do more individual work in their own notebooks for teachers to review on the spot. This doesn't need to be fancy, and until plans are in place, it doesn't even need to be necessarily for each subject, but heading into the first day of school with at least one will be a good place to start.

Backpack - This might be the year to opt for an easy-to-clean, easy-to-wipe down backpack or messenger bag for your child. You may want to choose one that can be easily cleaned with a disinfectant wipe or tossed in the washing machine for a more thorough clean.

Step 3: Stay Connected

Depending on the approach your district and family opt to take, technology is sure to play a role in this year's learning. Retailers are anticipating that parents will spend less on clothes this back-to-school season and more on technology. What tech devices should you consider adding to your list?

Personal Device - If your school is not able to provide students with personal devices for distance learning and you need your family's computer for your own remote work, it may be time to purchase a device for your child. This could be a desktop or laptop computer, a handheld tablet, or even a smartphone. Most learning platforms work best on computers and laptops, but many have accompanying apps that are optimized for use on a smartphone as well.

USB Drive - If students are going back and forth between school and home for different days of learning, a USB drive will be crucial. These small, inexpensive thumbnail drives will allow your student to save work from one device and open it on another. If they are in the middle of a large project at school, all of their hard work can be saved on the USB drive and brought home so that they can pick up right where they left off.

Step 4: Stay Sane

We're all in this together. No one on the planet has been immune to the physical, emotional, social, and financial impacts of COVID-19. You may be a bit fearful or uncertain about the upcoming school year. Your child and your child's teacher are likely to be as well. What are some things you can add to your shopping list to help calm everyone's nerves?

Notecards - Grab a stack of index cards, post-it notes, or blank cards, and get into the habit of writing your child a note a few times a week. You could jot down a joke and tuck it into their lunch box or hide a word of encouragement in their textbook. In the midst of stressful situations, the best thing parents can do is reassure their children of the security they'll find at home. A surprising note in the middle of the day can do that!

Journal - This may be helpful for you and your child. While not necessarily needed as a school supply, having a special place to debrief the day and write about feelings and emotions as we continue to ride this pandemic wave can be very therapeutic. Journaling not only helps children become better writers, but it also helps them process what they are thinking and gives them a place to look back and reflect on how they've overcome obstacles and challenges and emerged successfully. As a parent, you may find journaling to be therapeutic and a form of self-care as you continue to process all that is going on in the world as well.

Teacher Gift - Our teachers are some of our communities' greatest heroes! As antsy as we are about the upcoming year, you can imagine that their anxiety is even greater. Teachers are still waiting on definitive plans from state, local, and district leaders. They are worried about the physical safety of their students and families, as well as their academic needs. When shopping for back-to-school supplies, why not grab a gift card for your child's teacher-maybe for a local pizza place, so he or she doesn't have to worry about dinner one night? Or to a grocery store so they can pick up snacks for their own family in addition to the food they often buy for their students. A kind gesture goes a long way in helping a teacher feel appreciated, especially during these challenging times.

Back to School for Teachers

The 2020-2021 school year will be one to remember! Our resilient teachers and children will adapt to the many likely-to-change policies that will emerge. As parents, the best thing we can do is help set our children and teachers up for success. Use this shopping list to help you do just that. Remember, we're all in this together, even if we don't know exactly what "this" is going to look like yet! For teachers, checkout edHelper's Back to School worksheets, bulletin board ideas, and ice breakers.