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'Let’s just get this over with:' Parents make annual pilgrimage to stores for school supplies

6-year-old Kayla Waldorf and her 8-year-old brother, Rylan, check out their school supplies as the final days of summer vacation wind down. The siblings attend Holy Family School where their mom, Wendy Waldorf works. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Cory and Wendy Waldorf take a break with their children, Rylan, 8; Kayla, 6; and Kamryn, 3, on the playground at the Holy Family Elementary School. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

Wendy Waldorf's children don't head back to the classroom until Aug. 28, but she finished back-to-school shopping for them more than a month ago.

She is among legions of parents here and elsewhere who received lists of supplies that teachers say kids will need for the upcoming school year.

"I think the day we got the list, we said, 'Let's just get this over with,' " said Waldorf.

Daughter Kayla will start first grade, and son Rylan is going into third grade at Holy Family St. Mary's Catholic School in Grand Forks.

Waldorf figures she spent about $50 to equip the kids for school, "so, not too bad," she said.

"I probably spent a little less this year," compared to last year, she said. "We didn't have too much to buy—we had backpacks" and other supplies on hand.

That bill was reduced somewhat, too, by a large donation of Clorox wipes and Kleenex from the school's parent-teacher organization.

Even when Waldorf adds in her kids' new school-clothes and shoes, her costs will be nowhere near the roughly $970 per-student that the National Retail Federation projects parents will pay in back-to-school expenses.

Waldorf hasn't shopped much for clothes yet, she said. "They still need new shoes.

"I'm hoping that summer will hold on a little longer so they can wear their summer stuff."

The Grand Forks mom found all the required items on the teachers' supplies lists, with little trouble, during a single trip to Wal-mart.

There was only one thing she and Rylan had to search for, she said.

"My son needed a creative, decorative folder. We had to look around a little bit for that. (The store) didn't have much of a selection."

'A bonding experience'

Maura Tanabe, who's also preparing two children for elementary school, had no problems finding everything on the supply list when she went shopping two weeks ago at Target.

Tanabe was impressed that lists for each school had been printed out and positioned in the back-to-school products area, she said.

Her sons, Myles and Cole, will attend third grade and second grade, respectively, at Holy Family school.

This year, she decided to take each child separately to shop for supplies.

"I thought it would be a good bonding experience," said Tanabe of Grand Forks. She was half right; it worked with one of the boys.

Tanabe estimates she spent about $40 per child for classroom materials and supplies, maybe because she shopped with them separately.

"We probably overspent," she said.

She found out that a friend, who shopped for back-to-school items in late July, benefitted from a few sales.

"She picked up markers for a dollar each and crayons for 50 cents," she said. "I think I paid $3 for a marker."

Costs can vary, too, depending on the specific school and grade level and, especially in high school, the subject matter of the elective classes. For example, the costs for items required for third-grade students at Ben Franklin Elementary School totalled about $30.

No lists, no worries

"It's gotten ridiculous what we ask parents to bring," said Trish Mohr, a fourth-grade teacher who has taught at Holy Family school for three decades.

She remembers one year, for example, when parents were asked to buy a specific plastic container that was a perfect fit for a particular storage space, she said. But "it was "a nightmare to find them."

Some teachers ask for items of a certain brand that, while superior in quality, are much more costly than other brands and difficult to find.

"I watch people at stores, and I feel so sorry for these parents," said Mohr. "They're looking for a certain size of an item, or a specific type of item. ... Some of these parents have four children with them."

Arguments can flare up over this product or that, with parents seeking to control cost and children pleading for a specific item they want, no matter the price.

This year, she decided to take a different approach. She asked parents to give her $10 for each child in her class so she could buy supplies herself.

"I really wanted to limit the extra things that kids have at their desks," she said. "I buy pencils in bulk; they're cheap. Glue sticks are cheap."

So far, Mohr has received several emails from grateful parents who are "thrilled" to have been relieved of a shopping experience that can be trying, Mohr said.

At the upcoming Holy Family school open house, though, her students "won't have anything to unpack and put in their desks; I might have to find something for them to unpack.

"But, they're usually so excited to see each other, it probably doesn't matter."