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Back to school during pandemic

Mary McIlrath

Not surprisingly, health is the top concern this year for the parents and educators who have children and students in primary school in the U.S. It used to be that standard immunizations and the playground delivery of “Circle, circle, dot, dot, now you’ve got your Cootie shot!” was enough to protect kids from most sicknesses beyond the common cold and the occasional stomach flu. This year, 40% of parents say they will be providing their child with extra sanitation supplies (masks, hand sanitizer, wipes, etc.) for in-person learning (beyond what the school will provide).* Retailers like Amazon (who has still not announced a date for 2020’s Prime Day) and Walmart are advertising all of the regular and PPE school supplies that children will need.  Walmart’s tone of “However you go back, we’ve got your back” is particularly spot-on, acknowledging uncertainty and offering a message of stability.

That’s because, in 2020, many parents are still uncertain what learning will look like, even with some schools around the country already opened and most others launching the new year in the next few weeks. Uncertainty reigns, with 23% of parents reporting that as of August 1 their school was still undecided about how they are going back to classes (remote, in-person, or hybrid scenarios).* And, parents are concerned about the overall quality of instruction their children will receive this year. Thirty-eight percent (38%) of parents don’t think their child will receive the same level of learning opportunities and education in the fall of 2020 as they would during typical school times, while about one-third of parents are still unsure if the learning opportunities will be the same or not.* That’s not to mention the extracurriculars and socialization with teachers and peers that children will miss out on if they aren’t in-person.

Back to school during covid researchBack to school during covid-19 research

Parents who are unconvinced that learning opportunities will be the same say:

“Clearly, COVID-19 will have a severe impact on this year's learning opportunities. I don't want him in danger, but he just learns better in a classroom setting, which may not be possible.”

“I know the teachers will try hard, but I just don't think you can provide as many opportunities in an online format.”

“Nothing can replace their time at school both socially and academically. It is hard for them to flourish when they are looking at a screen.”

Most students, 8 in 10, will find themselves at the same school last year in some form.  Of those changing schools, 17% are moving from a physical school to homeschooling due to parental concerns about the pandemic.*

School districts have already been pivoting, announcing plans for hybrid or in-person learning, and changing course given feedback from parents and teachers’ unions. Parents are juggling dual concerns, with quality of e-learning education and exposure to COVID-19 as their two greatest concerns.*

Parents say:

“I live with my parents, and my parents are on the older side. My youngest has immune issues, and I just feel like avoiding it, and staying healthy is jeopardized by children going back to school. Kids lick things. Kids do not cover their mouths. I send my daughter to school with her hair in a braid or all cute, and she comes out looking like she went through a wind tunnel, so masks are not going to stay on their faces.”

“I want him to be able to return to school but worry about him getting COVID and how that will affect our family. Still haven’t decided between online learning vs. in-person school.”

“That she won’t get the proper education she needs while learning from home, but I’m willing to take that chance for her safety.”

“I don’t think that children learn as much of as well with distance learning plus the additional emotional, mental and social stressors they are experiencing”

Uncertainty about the location and quality of learning this fall aside, parents know their children still need to eat throughout the day, and the changing of seasons is a good time to experiment with different foods for their kids.  In fact, more than a third of parents (36%) expect to spend more on snacks this year than they did during Back to School season in 2019*—possibly a result of children at home grazing throughout the day instead of having regimented eating times at in-person school.  In contrast, parents expect to be spending less on more reusable goods like clothing and school supplies than in prior years.

How has back to school spending changed since covid-19How has back to school spending changed since the pandemic

Today’s parents and students need reassurance in a quickly changing, no-perfect-choice situation for many families.  At the end of the day, children are still growing and need food and beverages and clothes and shoes on a routine basis—making them crave your brands is a matter of instilling confidence in your quality and durability. This conversation is still alive. Register for C+R’s September 30th Consumer Connections panel, when our colleague Mimie Lund will be hearing from parents about how the initial school year has gone, pivots they’ve had to make, and how brands are making the right impact right now.

*Source: YouthBeat Parent Back-To-School Poll, August 2020

In case you missed them, please make sure to read Part 1 and Part 3 of our Back to School Shuffle blogs.  Also, please watch our consumer panel from September 30, focusing on Back To School as we continue our Consumer Connections Series. 

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