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08/04/2021

The term “back to school” means a lot of different things to different people. It depends not only upon your own family situation, but also on what you do for a living.

As a kid, a summer vacation seems like it goes on forever. In my case it was a wonderful time of endless opportunities, and yet I remember as well the excitement of September. It meant a new teacher, new grade, new classmates, new clothes and new school supplies.

When I got my first job in publishing, I learned that back to school wasn’t just about kids. I was an editor for a very old company that produced teacher resource books, instructional material and classroom décor for kindergarten through 8th grade.

All our products were intended to be purchased by teachers, as opposed to parents or schools, and we estimated that nearly half of the money those teachers spent was out-of-pocket. More than 80 percent of our sales came through school-supply dealers and educational retailers of one sort or another. We would have been happy to get out of direct selling altogether, but that’s a story for another day.

At any rate, our back-to-school season was determined by whatever timetable all those resellers were operating under, in order to get new products into schools for the fall semester. In general, we had to show them samples by early spring, so that they could place their orders in May and June.

So those two months were our back-to-school season. To our customers, of course, it was the following two months, and so it remains.

If you step back from the parochial viewpoint of our little industry and look at the broader scope of the U.S. economy, you will see that there is a much larger back-to-school season as well. It is based on parents, and includes apparel, computers, stationery, backpacks, sporting goods, and so on. You can pretty much designate its time frame as the month of August, give or take.

For many of those parents, though, back-to-school was as much about themselves as it was about their kids. It meant that their lives would return to normal rhythms, and they might even have some time left over to pursue their own interests. It’s a cliché, to be sure, but like most clichés it describes a basic truth.

Whatever your own meaning of the phrase may be, all the various definitions of back to school used to have one thing in common, and that was the thing students were coming back from: summer vacation. That’s not the case this year.

The timing may be the same, but the thing we’re coming back from is not an arbitrary break in the academic calendar, or a seasonal tradition. It’s a worldwide catastrophe which has cost millions of lives, including more than 600,000 of our fellow citizens.

Unfortunately, our response to the epidemic became politicized very early on in the crisis, with treatment options and preventive measures becoming associated with parties and ideologies. We Americans have always prided ourselves on coming together when faced with an external threat, but in this instance we clearly failed to do so.

About the only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that kids need to go back to school. Distance learning was successful from a technological standpoint, and will clearly have a place in education going forward, but for the most part it only served to emphasize the importance of face-to-face instruction. Most students lost precious ground, and they need to gain it back the old-fashioned way.

In June, a group of epidemiologists contributed an essay to The New York Times, entitled “We Must Reopen Schools This Fall.” In it, they addressed the questions that we all have about this most unusual of all back-to-school seasons.

First off, they point to the simple fact that children are less affected by the virus, and are about half as likely to pass the disease to others than are adults. A number of states have allowed in-person classes in some locations, and none of those places have experienced outbreaks of the virus.

As far as vaccination is concerned, children should continue to be vaccinated, but there is no need to force them, or segregate them, or make them show proof. It is much more important to vaccinate the adults, including teachers, staff and parents.

These experts agree that schools also don’t need to be overly concerned about sanitation. Frequently touched surfaces should be cleaned regularly, but there’s no need for spraying antimicrobial products all over everything. Plexiglas barriers are not necessary.

COVID testing should not be required for people without symptoms, unless a school is in a community which exceeds 200 new cases per week per 100,000 residents. The weekly infection rate in my own county is currently around 3.

Masks are still recommended indoors for children over 5, but the article suggests that the CDC should revise that guidance for communities that have low hospitalization rates and high rates of vaccination. Likewise the separation of student desks, which should remain 3 feet apart until local numbers are good.

Finally, it’s important to repair and maintain ventilation systems. Doors and windows should be kept open wherever possible.

In other words, the bar is not all that high. With very few exceptions, kids across America should be back in school, face to face, very soon. That’s good news for education, and it’s good news as well for every business that has a back-to-school season.

According to a forecast from MasterCard, overall back-to-school spending for 2021 will increase by 5.5 percent over the highly abnormal season of 2020, and 6.7 percent over 2019. Drilling down into those numbers reveals some interesting details.

Sales of apparel, as you might expect, are expected to be 78 percent higher than last year, and 11 percent above 2019. Department stores are looking for a 25-percent bounce from 2020, which would put them 10 percent over 2019.

For the first time ever, e-commerce sales are actually predicted to be down, but that is another anomaly caused by the strangeness of 2020. After a gargantuan increase of 53 percent last year, internet merchants may give back around 7 percent this fall.

Keep in mind that all these numbers are projections, which you might call an educated guess. My own guess may be considerably less educated, but I think it’s quite possible that the pendulum will swing further back toward brick-and-mortar retailers.

Many of the same factors that led Americans to choose face-to-face education over the electronic version also apply to other face-to-face experiences, including retail. One of the lessons of this pandemic has been that people can often best be helped by other people, in person.

This year, we’re all going back to school.


You can e-mail Kevin at kfahy@fwpi.com.

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