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Kansas City Parents Take A Wait-And-See Approach To Buying New School Supplies

Anne Kniggendorf
KCUR 89.3
On a recent afternoon, Nnamdi Okoro was one of the only shoppers in the school supply aisle at this Kansas City, Missouri, Walmart.

School districts across Kansas City and the nation have asked families to choose between remote and face-to-face learning. About 30% of local districts will begin the academic year in a remote learning model before phasing in the students who plan to attend in person.

The uncertainty has put a damper on back-to-school traditions, including buying school supplies. Area families and retailers have mixed responses to the disruption.

Sussana Okoro and her son are the only shoppers in the school supply aisle at a Kansas City, Missouri, Walmart. Her son, Nnamdi, is a new graduate of Center High School and will attend William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa.

They’re mostly shopping for Okoro’s three younger children, but because the Center District will begin the year 100% remote, she says that she didn’t receive school supply lists. She’ll buy some crayons, paper, and pencils and leave it at that until different needs arise.

Okoro also says that she skipped Missouri’s tax-free weekend, figuring the crowds would be dangerously large. “I would rather pay tax and be safe,” she says.

Anne Kniggendorf
KCUR 89.3
An Overland Park Target employee reports that he doesn't need to restock the school supplies very often.

In a typical August, the school supply aisles at local retailers are ransacked. Families jostle up and down the rows trying to find just the right new folder or backpack amid the chaos of pillaged displays.

This August, though, few items have left the shelves, so little restocking needs to happen, says Dylan Richey, an Overland Park Target employee. “We’re still getting the same amount in on trucks," he says, "so the supply chain is still going the same speed from what I’ve seen.”

The hesitancy and uncertainty has spread into other parts of the retail sector as well. Back-to-school clothes shopping is down from last year by as much as 6.4 percent.

Some reports that suggest spending on back-to-school will be up significantly from last year — but specifically in electronics.

In K-12 education, many area districts have already seen to the technological needs of their students. Shawnee Mission is a one-to-one district, meaning that every student is issued an electronic device.

Other districts worked toward technological equity among their families in the spring, during the initial phases of the crisis.

So, for many Kansas City families, buying really does come down to resupplying markers, crayons, and notebooks.

Anne Kniggendorf
KCUR 89.3
The school supply aisle at a Kansas City, Missouri, Walmart was nearly untouched on a recent afternoon.

Raymond B. Marsh Elementary PTA in Shawnee has streamlined that process for parents. Stephanie House is the parent who manages the school-supply packet program. Parents can pay a flat fee between $65 and 90 depending on grade level, and Educational Products Incorporated ships individual packets of supplies to schools. House says the 63 packets families ordered in the spring have already arrived at the school.

Shawnee Mission still expects to allow students to attend in person, but that can change at any moment. And when it does, House will have to find a way to hand off supplies to those students.

Marsh Elementary parent Laura Evans bought one of the kits. She anticipates that her third and fourth graders will spend a good amount of time at home, even if it’s under the hybrid model where they spend two days at school.

Evans says, “I can imagine them needing a small amount of supplies, but six boxes of crayons, five glue sticks, I mean these aren’t things they’re going to need at all.”

At an Overland Park Target, Katie Parra walks the school supply aisles with her three small children, the oldest of whom is a first grader at Oak Park-Carpenter Elementary. The shelves are well-stocked with enticing primary-colored products, and she had very few other shoppers to navigate around. She recalls that she spent a lot on supplies last year — but this year will be different.

“On the monetary side, we’re a little relieved,” she says. If her child is learning at home most of the time, she won’t need to buy everything on the list.

Parra’s family signed up for in-person learning, but she doesn’t know if the kids will really go back. “We have a lot of stuff at home. If we need something, we’ll run out and get it.”

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.
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