Ready, set, go back to school: Parents on expenses and strategies

Eliza McCarthy, 9, turned to her mother and said, “I think we should go shopping for school.”

“It was early July,” Tracy McCarthy said, with a laugh. “She said she missed her friends and was ready to go back.”

Ms. McCarthy suggested they wait until the school sent a list of what fourth graders like Eliza should have when school opens on Sept. 10.

The McCarthy family. Bryan, Eliza and Tracy. (Courtesy photo)

She was surprised that the school’s supply list seemed more streamlined than in past years. But the school’s list included something new in the age of COVID-19 — “1 towel, bathmat or rug for seating outside.”

As for suiting up for a new year, Ms. McCarthy’s mother took Eliza for some shopping and the rest was done online. Ms. McCarthy said she spent about $300, mainly because her daughter needed an entire new set of clothes and shoes.

“She grew three inches since she came home when school closed in March, so everything had to be new,” she said.

Prices were favorable for the family, she said, adding that “almost everything was on sale.”

Eliza is one of 56.4 million American students going back to school in 2020, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. And from what several Island parents told the Reporter, suiting kids up here and supplying them for their studies was way below the national average, which is about $789, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF).

Ms. McCarthy understands the situation of a child returning to in-person schooling in a pandemic, and the risk involved, telling the Reporter last month, “I have a feeling the [infection] rates will go up and they will have to go remote again, but maybe not. They have installed new filters in every classroom. We’re lucky because of the size of school we have.”

The school environment is an essential part of her daughter’s education she said. “For the social and emotional aspects, she needs to go back,” Ms. McCarthy said.


Nationally, the $789 it costs to get kids ready for the elementary school year is up from $696 for September 2019, according to the NRF. For college students, the price tag is $1,059, up from $976 last year. American families will spend a total of $28.1 billion sending students back to school, according to Deloitte, an international accounting firm.


The major item Jackson Surerus, 7, wanted on entering the second grade was a backpack with imagery from the video game “Fortnite.” And he got it, according to his father Brett who, along with his wife, Kelly, accomplished a clever compromise. “We won’t let him watch the game — too violent,” Mr. Surerus said. “But he got the backpack.”

As for their daughter Piper, 5, who is off to kindergarten, her backpack “had to be unicorns and sparkly things.”

The Surerus family. Brett, Kelly, Jackson and Piper. (Credit: Courtesy photo)

The family did all their back-to-school shopping online, using their Target store card for discounts, and spent about $200.

They’ve been vigilant in instructing their children on safe practices and then reinforcing the use of hygiene, especially wearing masks.

“We’ve got extra masks in their backpacks, in their pockets, in their new lunchboxes, everywhere,” Mr. Surerus said. “Being kids, they’re going to lose things like crazy.”

He also noted that a video sent to every student’s residence by the school district has been a significant aid to get Jackson and Piper ready for the new year. “We’ve watched it with them several times,” Mr. Surerus said.

The video shows the new layout for the school for social distancing and other precautions, so the children will be up-to-speed on navigating the building and what it will look like.

Ms. Surerus told the Reporter soon after new protocols were announced by the school district that she and her husband “have faith in the plan the administration has put forward and we’re lucky to have a small student body making social distancing plans possible.”

She knows nothing is ideal in a pandemic, especially putting their children “into an environment where another family’s choices can directly impact our children’s health.”

But she and her husband gave highest marks to the school district for the precautions it has taken.

One beloved tradition of the first day of school has been changed, Mr. Surerus said. For the off-to-school photos, the family will take them in their driveway with the kids’ grandparents, rather than at the school’s doors.


Elizabeth Weslek, 9, can’t wait to get back to school and enter the fourth grade. Her brothers, Evan, 11, going into sixth grade, and Harrison, 13, who will be an eighth grader, are just as eager.

This was a bit of surprise to their mother, Vicki, who said the children are usually ready to get back to school as summer wanes, but this year there was something extra to their feeling about returning.

“They want to get back to the building, even though they know it’s changed, and see their friends,” Ms. Weslek said.

For basic school supplies, she spent about $40 per child, and added a little extra for Elizabeth’s outside seating request. “We got a cute little rug,” Ms. Weslek said.

All three Weslek children “had major growth spurts this year,” and so the price tag for clothes and shoes was “about $200 per kid,” their mother said.

Elizabeth was more interested in what her first day of school outfit would be, Ms. Weslek said, and “her backpack is something really stylish from the woman’s section of Target.”

But the boys didn’t seem so concerned. In fact, Ms. Weslek had to convince them they needed new clothes, after they said they were fine with what they had. When she mentioned that winter was due to arrive, it woke them up that perhaps they’d need new warm clothes.

She’s kept abreast of changes to the school building and the new normal of social distancing and extra hygiene on school grounds by attending a virtual School Board meeting when the new procedures were laid out.

“I feel confident about them going back,” Ms. Weslek said. “I hope it’s not too sterile, but we all know it might be.”


It took some time for Lydia Martinez Majdišová to get into the swing “of this whole first day of school outfits and back-to-school clothes,” she said, as she and her husband Pepe Martinez get Sebastian, 12, ready to enter seventh grade, and Emma, 16, ready for her senior year.

Growing up in her native Slovakia, Ms. Majdišová said, “In my culture we went to school in the clothes we had.”

But she’s spent about $250 for supplies and clothes to get Sebastian suited up, who like most every other kid has gained inches over the summer. Emma shopped online for her new clothes, and paid with money she’s earned. For Sebastian, they went shopping in Riverhead for clothes, sneakers and supplies, taking precautions against the virus. Walmart was the destination for supplies, “because everything is inexpensive.”

It was a relief to get out after a lot of online buying. “When the pandemic hit, we bought everything online, including food,” Ms. Majdišová said.

She believes the school district has done its due diligence to keep the students, staff and teachers safe. “There’s no guarantee, of course,” she added. “I just hope everyone adheres to the rules.”

Going back to in-person learning will help Sebastian, she said. Last month, speaking with the Reporter, she noted that her son was one of many students who didn’t take to remote learning.

Sebastian, with his mother, Lydia. (Credit:Reporter file photo)

She had been visiting her parents in Slovakia when the travel ban came down in March, and couldn’t get home until mid-April. She had to resort to remote-mothering for six weeks while her husband Mr. Martinez worked long hours to keep their business, STARs Café, running during the emergency.

“Sebastian was not able to get into the online teaching routine,” Ms. Majdišová said. “He forgot or he couldn’t find the links, and Pepe was at work every day. I started to receive emails from the teachers that his assignments were not on time,” and the stress on the boy began to grow.

Ms. Majdišová asked his teachers for help, and was pleasantly surprised by the amount of support Sebastian got. “They reached out to him, reminded him, and helped him find the links.”

One bonus to the safety precautions put in place for in-person learning in the school’s building is it might lower the number of kids who catch colds and flu every fall and winter, Ms. Majdišová said. She added that she knows two examples who come down with the sniffles and worse like clockwork when the weather turns chilly.