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To the skyrocketing cost of school supplies, add masks

Adam Shallbetter on the first day of school in Salt Lake City. Students in Salt Lake City are wearing masks under a mandate issued by the mayor. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

I had to be online at the right moment. I had already loaded the website, made sure my PayPal was linked. Hitting refresh repeatedly, I worried about the slow-loading progress bar, felt anxious until I got the confirmation email: I successfully purchased a well-reviewed mask for my child, an item so in demand for back-to-school that the company was rolling out timed restocks.

As my partner said, I can’t believe we’re doing mask drops now.

Masks, the essential accessory for the 2021-22 school year, join a growing list of school supplies that are rising in price. The hottest school item is the best protection against covid, although still contested, with mask mandates outright banned in some districts.

But, like other school supplies, they don’t come cheap.

Why are school supplies so expensive for families and teachers? And how have the costs only gone up during the coronavirus pandemic? In 2014, the average parent of a K-12 student spent about $100 per child on school supplies, an increase of 12 percent from the previous year. Three years later, that cost had ballooned to as much as $650 for an elementary child. Last year, parents were predicted to spend an average of $529 per child on school supplies, even with many students at home in remote school.

Costs are expected to rise even higher in 2021, due to pandemic inflation and covid-related supply chain shortages. The National Retail Federation says families with school-aged children will average more than $840 on school supplies this year, and that the total back-to-school spending will be $37.1 billion, billions higher than last year’s record spending.

Some experts cite the child tax credit for the increase in school supply spending, overlooking that a number of divorced parents, like myself, did not receive it due to an antiquated practice of alternating which parent claims a child on taxes, even if one parent has full custody.

Technology is also partially to blame for the jump in costs. Pricey calculators have long been on older children’s supply lists. Now, more households have realized that children, even young ones, need computers should in-person learning be suspended abruptly, as it was in 2020 when school districts like my own went remote overnight with no plan in place (and no way initially to get laptops to students). And more families have discovered children may need their own Internet-capable devices to avoid battles over a work computer should offices go or stay remote as well.

Some families may be doubling up on supplies, fearing a sudden quarantine, which would make parents de facto teachers again.

Last year, my son’s elementary school went remote for more than half the school year, but the supply list didn’t come down in price. When he returned to in-person instruction in the spring of 2021, I had to replace many of his school items, not wanting to send him to class with half-used supplies.

This year my family spent $170 on school supplies for one elementary child. This does not include the laptop we bought him late in 2020, or new clothes or shoes — a necessity when it comes to a tall, rapidly-growing tween (who just grew out of kids’ shoe sizes; adult men’s shoes are a whole lot more expensive). My son’s school doesn’t require a uniform, but when schools do, it can sometimes add hundreds to the back-to-school bill. In some states, such as Indiana, parents are required to pay for textbooks as well.

Our school supplies tab came out about $100 higher than my child’s public school said the items should cost, if we had ordered from the school’s contracted, third-party supplier. But to do so, we would have needed to pay for supplies late last school year.

It’s not easy to shell out a large amount of money in advance, especially as the pandemic continues to create so much instability, financially and otherwise. Some parents continue to switch learning options — or even schools — worried about pandemic plans (or lack of), making it hard to know what supplies to buy.

The list is usually very specific, with precise brands. The notebook must be blue. The student must bring one folder, even though they are sold in packs of 10. Although this excess waste worries me, the reason for this precision is twofold. Many schools now contract with those third-party suppliers, which only carry certain brands.

It’s also, according to teachers, to make sure all students have the exact same materials, which cuts down on bullying. It helps create a more level playing field for learning when everyone uses the same tools.

But adding masks onto back-to-school purchases can be costly as families struggle to find and afford high-quality masks that ensure the best possible protection for children still too young to be vaccinated — nearly 50 million children in the United States.

Well-fitting masks offer the best protection against the delta variant. What about children whose families can’t afford the extra money for decent masks? The cheapest masks in this roundup of the “best KN95 masks for kids” is $14.95 for a pack of 10. The top mask pick for kids and toddlers on the New York Times’ Wirecutter is $17 for a single mask. I opted for the Happy Mask — a reusable mask with great reviews that has been highly recommended since the delta variant emerged. It cost $24 for a single mask, plus shipping. I was only able to afford one.

And kids, especially younger kids, go through masks fast. My son’s school recommends students bring multiple masks each day. By the end of last school year, most of our masks were worn ragged — and none were the higher-quality ones health experts now recommend.

If equity is important to schools, important enough that all students must use Ticonderoga #2 pencils, why don’t schools provide safe masks to students? Why don’t more schools require not a shopping bag full of supplies — but rather, that parents contribute to a school supply fund, like in Shaker Heights Schools in Ohio? This could be a fee that could be waived for lower income households.

We’ve long known socioeconomic differences can negatively affect a child at school — scholastically, physically and emotionally. But when it comes to the pandemic, not being able to afford a well-fitting mask could also have dire consequences.

This year, school supply lists include hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes, which can be expensive and hard to find. These items are intended, not just for the individual student, but for the entire classroom, especially as school budgets shrink, and families and teachers must shoulder the cost of providing building essentials such as paper towels and tissues.

One of the positive changes of the pandemic has been free meals at school for all children — why not safe supplies as well?

As the daughter of a public school teacher in rural Ohio, I watched my mother spend thousands over the years — money we didn’t have to spare — on supplies for her elementary school classroom and snacks for her students. If she had not retired, I imagine she would be stocking her classroom with child-sized masks she had bought out of her own pocket. I imagine today that many teachers are doing the same.

Alison Stine is a writer from rural Ohio. Her novel “Trashlands” will be published in October.

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