Amy Lynn Ferry normally spends early August buying take home folders, decorating pencil boxes stocked with supplies and making bookmarks for each of her first-grade students.
This year, however, Ferry won’t need to stock up on her usual school supplies for her students at Highland Springs Elementary School in Henrico County. The school year will start off virtually.
But the list of supplies her students will need to buy will be longer than usual this year since they won’t have access to any of the communal classroom supplies.
“I think the cost will be higher based on what we’re asking for,” Ferry said. “I think it’ll be higher for families because it’s something that the schools put on families to provide.”
This year’s back-to-school shopping will be unusual.
Sales should increase this year compared with a year ago, some experts say, largely because students will be buying more computers and other electronics for virtual learning.
Parents likely will buy fewer traditional back-to-school clothes since many students will be learning virtually at home. But parents will be buying different school supplies than normal to compensate for the fact that students won’t be able to use communal classroom supplies if they are learning from home.
“Most of those who are anticipating some portion of e-learning this year are planning to purchase items specifically for a virtual environment,” said Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights for the National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade organization. “This includes larger electronics, like laptops or desktops, as well as speakers and headphones and other categories like desks, lamps and workbooks.”
Back-to-school spending nationally is expected to total $33.9 billion, up from $26.2 billion last year, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey. Families with children in elementary school through high school plan to spend an average of $789, while those with children in college plan to spend an average of $1,059.
Much of the increase in spending is largely due to more parents buying computers and other electronics, with 63% of K-12 families in the survey saying they plan to buy those items, up from 54% last year.
Deloitte’s annual back-to-school survey found spending likely will remain flat this year, with spending for K-12 students at about $529 per student and about $1,345 per college student. Spending also is shifting toward digital products over more traditional items, the Deloitte survey found.
Virginia’s sales tax-free weekend, from Aug. 7 through Aug. 9, should allow families to save some money. Consumers won’t be paying sales tax on many items next weekend, including certain school supplies under $20 and clothing and shoes under $100.
The tax exemption also applies to certain hurricane and emergency preparedness products, such as portable generators priced at $1,000 or less and gas-powered chain saws selling for less than $350. Also tax-free are Energy Star and WaterSense appliances priced at $2,500 or less.
Tax-free items can be bought in stores, online and by phone.
The tax-free period has been held annually in Virginia during the first weekend in August since 2006.
“It’s usually a very big hit and a successful weekend. The sales tax holiday always lends itself to large and small retailers in terms of enhancing the foot traffic in their stores,” said Jodi Roth, the director of government affairs for the Virginia Retail Federation. “When customers are in the stores buying their school supplies, they’ll also pick up other things.”
The tax-free weekend is advantageous for the consumer and the retailer, she said.
Shoppers might save even more during that weekend as many retailers have opted to pick up the sales tax on items that aren’t on the list of allowable tax-exempt merchandise.
But Roth doesn’t expect this year’s tax-free weekend to be as successful as previous years, despite predictions for record-breaking back-to-school spending.
“The main reason is that the majority of school systems are doing virtual learning. For a lot of parents, there won’t be a need to go out and buy those new school clothes and shoes and a lot of necessities needed for in-person learning,” she said.
For instance, Roth plans to spend less money than usual this back-to-school season. Her children, who are in high school and college, will need fewer supplies for virtual learning, she said.
“The majority of the work is going to be done on their laptop. There will be no turning in of work because that would mean physical contact. Paper won’t be needed,” she said. “Even basic supplies that people normally have to purchase when going back to school won’t be needed.”
High school students who rely on their laptop for most of their work anyway may have fewer supply needs.
Most elementary school students will be expected to purchase more supplies than usual, like those in Ferry’s first-grade class at Highland Springs Elementary School.
Parents of those students are typically asked to buy crayons, Lysol wipes, scissors, glue sticks, pencils and a journal, Ferry said. She provides the rest of her students’ supplies.
This year, the first-grade school supply list includes a whiteboard, dry erase markers, a journal for each subject, foam counters, a pencil sharpener, a calendar, Play-Doh, a highlighter, a dry erase pocket for handwriting exercises, and headphones, in addition to the usual items.
Back-to-school shopping, which is the second-biggest retail season behind the December holidays, will be especially important this year as retailers recover from a difficult few months during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think it’ll be [a] hard hit, in addition to the other hard hits businesses have been taking lately with COVID-19, with property damage and with customers not feeling comfortable shopping in person,” Roth said. “Virtual learning is just one more factor that is going to affect their bottom line significantly.”
Technology retailers could see higher demand with families shopping for different items than usual this back-to-school season, Roth said.
“I don’t really know that virtual learning is going to help many retailers, other than maybe the tech industry, where parents may want to [upgrade] their home learning center for their kids.”
Spending on electronics or computer-related equipment is expected to increase more than any other category, according to the National Retail Federation’s survey.
Seventy-two percent of families whose children will be taking classes from home expect to buy computers, home furnishings or other supplies for virtual learning, the survey found.
The back-to-school season has already looked different at the Best Buy near Chesterfield Towne Center mall.
The “hot items” this year are any products that will help with at-home learning or at-home teaching, said Matthew Early, the general manager of Best Buy on Koger Center Boulevard.
“People want to make sure their home networks are up and running and capable of supporting the number of devices that are on it,” he said. “Online learning will cause a bigger drain on people’s networks than usual, so people are asking for help with that.”
Many customers also are looking for webcams, an external mouse or keyboard, and extra monitors.
“There seems to be a lot more people who need advice and help, versus people who come in and know exactly what they want,” Early said. “They want anything that will help them have a better at-home learning or teaching experience.”
Some families are delaying their usual back-to-school shopping for clothes and shoes.
Back-to-school season is normally one of the busiest for Saxon Shoes in the Short Pump Town Center in western Henrico. So far, the store hasn’t seen as much business as usual, said Gary Weiner, president and CEO of the family-owned Saxon Shoes, which also has a store in The Village at Spotsylvania Towne Centre in Fredericksburg.
“We’ve had some foot traffic for kids’ shoes in the store these past few weeks, and we do expect it to build as we get closer to school; we just don’t think it’ll be what it has been in the past,” Weiner said.
He expects the store to see a “pretty nice bump” during the tax-free weekend. But he doesn’t think Saxon Shoes will be as busy as usual because of virtual learning.
“There’s no real urgency to come in and get some new [shoes] for the back-to-school season because a lot of people just aren’t going back to school and others aren’t sure,” he said.
The store has been doing more of its business online lately, especially after being closed during the coronavirus pandemic.
The National Retail Federation’s survey found 43% of consumers plan to do more of their back-to-school shopping online than usual because of COVID-19.
“We’re trying to do a few things a little more digitally, even though in all honesty we much prefer to fit children’s shoes in person to make sure they get the right size,” Weiner said.
When students and teachers eventually return to school for in-person classes, they’ll need their usual school supplies and back-to-school wardrobe, he said.
When Ferry’s first-grade class resumes in-person classes possibly as soon as November, she’ll buy the pencil boxes and other supplies she usually needs for her classroom.
“I was walking out of Walmart the other day, and I was looking at all of the buckets of crayons, glue and other school supplies and I thought, ‘They should hold off and do this again in nine weeks,’” she said.
Working parents are feeling anxious facing a virtual start to public school in most counties.
Christy Bare is a single working mom and nurse with two kids, a rising sixth-grader and rising eighth-grader, at Robious Middle School in Chesterfield County.
She’s scrambling to find a nanny to watch the kids and help them with their virtual schoolwork while she’s at work with Bon Secours Home Health.
“I would have liked to have known earlier. All parents are in panic mode,” Bare said. “I basically have two weeks to figure it out and locate a nanny.”
She and her ex-husband will have to dip into their savings to cover the cost.
Bare described Chesterfield’s spring session of virtual learning as “chaotic” and poorly planned. There was no set schedule, none of the grades counted, and her kids stopped caring. She’s worried that’s going to happen again this fall.
Her daughter has an Individualized Education Plan and needs more time with teachers and studying. Bare said she has no idea how that will be addressed by Chesterfield County Public Schools in the fall.
“I feel really, really overwhelmed right now,” she said. With her job with Bon Secours Home Health, she provides home health care for patients suffering from a variety of illnesses, including COVID-19.
“I really envy the moms who get to work from home. I’m an essential worker. I can’t bring my patients home with me,” she said.
On social media, many working parents are scrambling to find tutors or to assemble learning pods where families will team up to share the burden of at-home learning.
Doug Payne, who works for a local nonprofit, and his wife, Lynn, who works for Capital One, have decided to team up with another family to create a learning pod for their second-graders at Tuckahoe Elementary.
The Paynes have twins, and their neighbors have a daughter. The neighbors will be taking the morning shift every day from 8 to 11:15 a.m. And the Paynes will take over from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“Teaching three 7-year-olds for 2½ hours a day in two households should prove interesting,” Payne said. “We all have fairly demanding jobs and know it’s not going to be easy.”
Others are questioning whether to work at all, like Sofia, a local preschool teacher, who declined to provide her last name because she was afraid it would impact her job.
“My paycheck is pretty small, but it helps with groceries and gas,” she said. Her husband works in a call center at a local company .
They have a third-grader and a sixth-grader in public schools; Sofia wants to keep her preschool job, but she doesn’t know if it’s worth it with impending child care costs due to virtual school.
“I would like to set up something like a co-op or a pod, but it depends on how much it will cost. I have a cousin who’s willing to tutor the kids. But even if we pay her $10 an hour, that’s almost my whole paycheck. Do I stay home and not have an income? Or leave the kids here by themselves? What do you do?” she asked.
She said many teachers at her preschool are quitting to stay at home with their kids because they can’t afford to pay for child care or a nanny.
“I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.
Others, like Regan Kain and her husband, Scott, are busy turning the family sun room into the family schoolroom in their Chesterfield home.
They have a first-grader at Gordon Elementary and a third-grader at Greenfield Elementary and plan to take turns working with their kids while fielding work calls and turning in projects. She works in sales and her husband is an underwriter. Both have been able to work from home since the pandemic hit, but it’s hard, she said, to juggle both work and child care.
“I’m feeling pretty overwhelmed at the moment,” she said. “We’ve been talking with other parents in the neighborhood. It’s really hard for working parents to keep them engaged and moderated online. Right now, we have no idea what to expect. It’s just wait and see.”
Laura Griffin, clerk of court at Chesterfield Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, said she’s worried that “school is likely to be disastrous this fall.”
She has a 14-year-old daughter at Bailey Bridge Middle School who struggled with online learning in the spring and who she worries will struggle again.
Griffin regularly puts in 10- to 12-hour workdays at her job, and her husband works full time as well.
“I’ve heard school leaders state that every effort will be made so that parents who work can help their children when they get home. So does that mean that after a 10- to 12-hour workday, we should expect to come home, eat a quick meal, then do school for four to five hours? I don’t know that I will have that in me. Every shred of resilience I had in my reserves has been expended during this pandemic,” Griffin said.
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As a member of the Rat Line at Virginia Military Institute in 1968, Harry Gore saluted Stonewall Jackson each time he walked by the Confederate general’s statue on the military academy’s campus.
He’d pause, raise his hand to his head, and think to himself: “I’m still here.”
Gore was the first Black person accepted to VMI and one of five to integrate the school 52 years ago, breaking the color barrier at the oldest state military college in the U.S. and making VMI the last public college in Virginia to integrate. The Black cadets, like their peers, would salute Jackson, a professor at VMI before the Civil War, each time they passed the statue.
While VMI has done away with the practice of saluting the statue, the monument remains, as Gore thinks it should and as the state law mandates.
“We really don’t want to erase history, and I want the younger generation to know the extent of the struggle,” Gore said.
Adam Randolph, one of the other barrier-breaking cadets, left VMI after two years, in part due to the school’s Confederate iconography, including the Jackson statue.
“I found it distasteful,” Randolph said.
As localities and colleges across Virginia grapple with what to do with their Confederate symbols, VMI announced this week that it is changing some of its traditions in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. However, the Confederate statues will remain, with no plans to take down Jackson or rename any VMI buildings, Superintendent J.H. Binford Peay III said.
“Rather, in the future we will emphasize recognition of leaders from the Institute’s second century,” Peay wrote in a seven-page letter to cadets, faculty, alumni and the community. “We will place unvarnished context on the value and lessons to be learned from the Institute’s rich heritage, while being mindful of the nation’s challenges and sensitivities to being fair and inclusive to all.”
VMI’s Confederate iconography is exempt from a new state law that gives localities control of Confederate monuments, which Richmond officials and others have used to remove the symbols in a state where much of the Civil War was fought.
Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, a VMI alumnus, successfully proposed the exemption during the General Assembly session, with an amendment that said nothing in the new law “shall apply to a monument or memorial located on the property of a public institution of higher education within the City of Lexington,” where VMI is located.
“VMI’s heritage still has significant relevancy today, as every cadet — regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender — is inspirationally reminded every day, ‘You may be whatever you resolve to be,’” Norment said in a statement. “I embrace its intrinsic values and history in producing extraordinary ‘citizen soldiers,’ who become the leaders we so desperately need in today’s atmosphere. VMI produces well-rounded graduates who are prepared to make a positive imprint on the communities where they live.”
He added: “Like every other public college and university in Virginia, VMI has a Board of Visitors, as well as a Superintendent, which is a military institution’s equivalent of the president of a civilian college. The Board and the Superintendent determine the policies that govern VMI. I respect their judgment and will continue to support their policy decisions.”
Peay, the superintendent, and VMI’s board of visitors said in 2017 after the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville that it would keep the statues.
Then-gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, a VMI alumnus, said he respects his alma mater’s decision. Northam has been one of the state’s leading proponents of removing Confederate iconography in recent months.
Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said Thursday: “The Governor has made it clear that we should not be glorifying individuals who fought to uphold the institution of slavery, nor should we be honoring a revisionist version of our history.
“While he does not direct individual university decision making, he expects VMI — like all state-supported schools — to be welcoming and inclusive of all. As he often says, this work requires more than just words. It requires action.”
Virginia has removed at least 18 Confederate symbols since Floyd’s May death, the second-most of any state behind North Carolina (20), according to an analysis of 2019 Southern Poverty Law Center data. That leaves 229 standing.
Removing Confederate monuments is an increasingly popular opinion in Virginia.
A new poll released Thursday by the Center for Public Policy at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University found 38% of state residents think that the remaining Confederate statues should be moved to museums, up from 23% in December 2017. Thirty-two percent of the people surveyed said the monuments should be left in place, a drop of 17 percentage points from 2017.
According to the poll of 838 adults, conducted via phone from July 11-19, 14% of Virginians think the monuments should be removed altogether.
The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.19 percentage points for all adults and 6.40 percentage points for likely voters.
While VMI won’t be taking action on its Confederate statues, Peay said it will implement other changes.
Every cadet will take a second-year course called the “American Civic Experience” that will “emphasize American history and civics within the context historically of national and world events, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and slavery.”
Peay said the course has been under development for three years and will be piloted this fall.
VMI will also review two Virginia history classes, one on the state before 1865 and one after the Civil War, “to ensure that they are taught with the proper context and from multiple perspectives.”
VMI will re-center the tall parade ground flagpoles to shift the focus away from Jackson, while relocating the Cadet Oath ceremony. Instead of holding it at New Market Battlefield, where VMI cadets fought for the Confederacy, Peay said “the Oath is important to the current cadetship and should be executed at VMI.”
VMI will also promote more commissioning into the military and recruit more diverse faculty and staff, among other things.
“Throughout the years, the primary focus on honoring VMI’s history has been to celebrate principles of honor, integrity, character, courage, service, and selflessness of those associated with the Institute,” Peay wrote. “It is not to in any way condone racism, much less slavery.”
Peay said VMI’s governing board will discuss the statues and other parts of its plan during its September meeting.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch is examining how virtual school will impact people in the Richmond area. This series of articles takes a look at parents, teachers and businesses who have been forced to adapt their plans for the upcoming school year.