School closures in 2020 caught the world by surprise. Low income families not only had to deal with the additional health risks and financial struggles associated with the pandemic, but also to transform their home into a classroom. School supply drives were an absolute life-line to so many children last year. Learning from home and staying focused on zoom is already a challenge, and without learning essentials, this task is almost impossible.
Fast forward to today, with the reduction of COVID cases and vaccines becoming gradually available, many schools are planning to open in the fall of 2021 in some shape or form. However, there is no guarantee that the coming school year will be a smooth sail, especially given recent variants and the investments needed by the schools to make the classes COVID safe. Therefore, in addition to reopening plans, everyone should also be preparing for a distance learning scenario, in case infections surge again in the winter or a new more dangerous variant emerges on the scene. In the past few weeks, nonprofits have started to reach out to us at Roonga in order to begin planning their 2021 Back to School drives. In this month’s Inside-In Kind, we will provide some guidance as you think about yours.
Backpack or No Backpack? That is the question.
Traditional back to school drives included backpacks filled with school supplies based on age groups. Many nonprofits are wondering if they should provide a backpack this year given that they either provided one last year or given the uncertainty of whether school should open. Our answer is YES on backpacks! Based on recent conversations with a number of organizations, we know that backpacks will continue to be at the top of the requested items again this year for the following reasons:
- The population that is being served each year is transient, and more families are unfortunately added every year due to financial difficulties, and this year will be no different, especially with COVID. So, expect to serve many new families.
- Families who received a backpack last year may have repurposed it or lost possession of it. Families had to find creative solutions to make ends meet, some parents had to move or find alternative child care solutions while they work. This was a rough year. We should not assume that children have a new backpack ready to be used simply because they were provided one last year.
- Backpacks may be the only storage space a child gets, even if they are learning from home. It is a place to store items and other belongings. Think about a family of 6, or any small apartment with multiple siblings. A backpack for each child will help parents stay organized. And a fresh backpack marks a fresh new year for the student. A win-win all around.
If you are moving forward with backpacks, remember to select a quality bag that will last. There’s typically a tradeoff between cost and quality, but you can find low cost options that are still decent quality. Keep in mind these issues when selecting low-cost backpacks.
Pre-Assembled Kits or Loose Supplies?
Many programs have historically provided a list of supplies, distributed collection barrels into the community, and asked donors to purchase from the list and drop them into the barrel. Then volunteers are recruited to pick up the barrels, sort the supplies, and pack the backpacks. With the emergence of COVID, many organizations did not run a drive last year or did not accept loose supplies due to safety and staffing reasons. Instead, many organizations opted for the purchase of pre-filled backpacks which solved many of the COVID concerns. Your decision whether or not to collect loose supplies this year will depend on your local conditions and risk tolerance.
- Loose Supplies: Although vaccines for essential workers are under way, most areas will likely continue to encourage social distancing and all the necessary precautions, which will likely limit volunteer involvement. Other areas in the United States have never really shut down, so those areas will have much greater flexibility in how many volunteers can get involved. You can always streamline the collection of loose supplies via an online drive like this one, but going with loose items will require you to recruit the volunteers to assemble backpacks.
- Pre-Filled Backpacks: Pre-filled backpacks and/or kits (in drives like this one) continue to be ideal for organizations anticipating little volunteer involvement or seeking to streamline their back-to-school program. School supplies arrived pre-assembled into kits and are ready for distribution, minimizing logistical challenges and safety concerns. These kits are often available in different bundles by age group so that you can purchase the supplies that work best for your needs. Usually, vendors can also create custom kits if your needs are very specific.
Modifications and Additions for COVID-Times
During COVID, we have seen new items requested for back to school drives. Here are the main ones to consider:
- Headphones or Earbuds: Chances are that there will be some remote days in the coming school year, so headphones are an absolute must to be able to concentrate in a small home. We recommend ‘over the head’ headphones as they can serve all age groups. If you know the children’s ages, you may opt in to provide earbuds for the older population (middle school and up). In any case, we recommend headphones with a built-in-microphone which are helpful for a child to participate in zoom classes.
- COVID Protection Items: Masks are obviously mandatory, and expect to remain mandatory for a long time. Additionally, mini hand sanitizers are recommended for individual students, and for the classroom, larger size bottles of hand sanitizer and/or sanitizing wipes are highly appreciated.
- Reusable Water Bottles: Water fountains are currently out of service in public places. To conserve the environment but still allow students to remain well hydrated, we recommend providing reusable water bottles. Make sure the watter bottles are made from safe and sturdy materials.
What Collection Method Is Right For Me?
As previously discussed, back-to-school drives can come in all shapes and sizes, especially given regional differences and income disparities. Here are a few ways you can run your school supply drive:
- Traditional offline donation drive: A list of supplies is created and sent (or otherwise posted) for donors. Collection barrels are placed throughout the community, maximizing access points for donors. Each donor buys supplies as they please, (hopefully from the list provided), and from the store of their choice. Supplies are then placed in a large collection bin. This type of drive requires a lot of volunteer assistance – to help with the collection, review, sorting, and organization of supplies – and can only be run in areas where there are few restrictions for gatherings. In addition, there is no guarantee that all requested items will be purchased by donors. The nonprofits will only know at the very end if they are able to fill the backpacks with all the items that were requested.
- Online collection drive: Exact items and quantities are listed on an online collection drive for donors to choose and purchase from, and the supplies are shipped directly to your organization. This drive type is ideal for areas where there are strict limitations on gatherings, or where there are concerns for the spread of the virus. This drive format streamlines the collection and delivery of supplies, minimizing staff and volunteer time to the minimum. Variations on this theme include corporate projects where a company purchases the backpacks in bulk and asks the employees to fill them. The nonprofit knows in real time how many items have been purchased and can plan ahead in case of gaps.
- Hybrid online + offline drive: The online drive is held in conjunction with an offline drive. The collection bins may be placed in strategic locations, but not as widespread as a full traditional offline drive. The online drive may feature the entire list of supplies, or specific items that are often under-donated. The hybrid online + offline drive is ideal in the current environment if volunteers are permitted, as it allows donors to participate however they are most comfortable, and it also allows volunteers to participate in whatever capacity is possible given local laws and requirements.
- Adopt a student: Specific profiles are uploaded to the website. Each student’s needs are listed, with their preferences (color, style, etc.). Donors adopt a student, similar to our holiday program, and shops for their exact needs. The supplies are then delivered directly to a location of choice. This is particularly recommended for specific items that are required in addition to bulk supplies (eg clothing items, specific learning accessories, gift cards, etc). This will obviously require the nonprofit to interview the families to receive their specific back-to-school needs.
Need help getting started? Check out these Inside In-Kind articles for additional suggestions:
- How to maximize your school supply drive
- Issues with low cost backpacks
- Tips for getting your school supply drive on track FAST
- Donation drives in the age of COVID19
And in case you’re looking for a list of school supplies to get started with, check out the table below – every school district has their own particular needs, so your specific list may differ, but this should get you going:
Give us a holler at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like some help planning your school supply drive. Our online collection drives are free, and we’d be happy to share how other nonprofits have addressed different challenges in their drives.