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The 2020/2021 school year is quickly approaching and with the COVID-19 pandemic still present, debates continue about the best approach for starting school in the fall. Ultimately, parents want what’s best for their children: getting a good education while remaining safe and healthy. However, the best back to school scenario is not currently an option, and students and their parents face a wide range of less than ideal possible starts to the school year.

Some parents may have the choice of sending their kids back to school or keeping them at home for online/home school. Parents who are able to choose for themselves must balance concerns over a deadly pandemic on one hand with their child’s educational and social development on the other. Factors like a parent’s marital status and employment will greatly influence what parents will ultimately decide for their children.

Meanwhile, students themselves have very little say in how the coming school year will start. After a summer void of sports, camps and other activities, many will be eager to return to the classroom and reunite with friends, but social distancing guidelines mean the familiar experiences such as lunch in the cafeteria or recess on the playground may not be possible.

High school students who find themselves without extracurricular activities or opportunities to take the SAT may be even more worried than usual about their chances of getting accepted to degree programs. We may also see greater numbers of high school graduates consider taking gap years until college and university campuses can safely offer less socially distant learning and living arrangements.

Brands can help students by…

Keeping life as “normal” as possible. Kids will not have a chance to go back and grow up under different circumstances, and currently, they stand to miss out on a lot of life-defining experiences. Corporate-sponsored virtual proms and graduations last spring gave high school seniors a chance to experience these coming of age milestones, even if the experience was unusual.

Businesses that can offer young people chances to socialize and celebrate safely may be able to salvage this year’s homecoming, Halloween and other fall and winter occasions. Similarly, athletic brands that can simulate the experience of team sports or other brands that can offer a chance at socially distanced after school activities and clubs will be able to help kids maintain social connections and continue to cultivate their interests and passions.

Several major school districts, including Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and Phoenix, have decided to start the school year with all classes conducted remotely. Parents with kids in a remote learning situation will be forced to continue to supervise online lessons with their children. For two-parent families where one parent is able to stay home with the children, this will be an easier task to manage.

As schools transitioned online last spring, parents, especially moms, were burdened with keeping their kids’ school work organized, learning new school systems like Google Classroom, and keeping their kids focused and on track. Parents realize that in this scenario, their children’s education is tied to their own skills and abilities as teachers, and many may feel ill-equipped to fill this role.

Brands should quickly realize that back-to-school shopping this year will not be business as usual, and they can help parents by providing products and services that make life for students and families as easy and as safe as possible.

Brands can help parents survive distance learning by…

Focusing on tech and organizational products for parents who are choosing to online/home school. Providing parents with specialized hybrid teacher/parent planners will help give them the confidence to help their kids and keep them organized. Many parents’ frustration with virtual school was rooted in having to learn an entirely new system on the fly. Schools and tech brands that have stepped up to help make online learning possible should also provide parents with step by step guides on how to successfully navigate these programs. Parents will also appreciate resources that can help them brush up on the subjects their children are studying.

Supervising online learning will be a greater challenge for homes with two employed parents or a working single parent. For some parents, sending their kids back into the classroom may be the only feasible option to prevent their children from falling further behind academically. Parents who cannot rely on a partner to help supervise distance learning may not have the luxury of taking time away from work to help their children learn at home without sacrificing some or all of their household’s income.

Just because parents may need to send their kids to school in person, doesn’t mean they will feel comfortable doing so. Even before the pandemic, schools were essentially petri dishes for contagions. This fall, many older schools will be unable to provide the level of air filtration needed to reduce coronavirus spread, and keeping kids, especially younger ones, safely separated will be challenging.

Brands can help working parents by…

Offering peace of mind with travel-sized disinfecting wipes, masks and gloves with patterns and characters that kids will want to wear. Providing children with PPE will help parents feel more confident in their child’s safety. Parents will also be purchasing traditional back to school items. Some may even buy more supplies than usual in order to prevent kids from sharing these items and spreading germs at school. Brands can appeal to parents and children by bundling items together or providing fun ways to store and sanitize school supplies.

Brands should quickly realize that back-to-school shopping this year will not be business as usual, and they can help parents by providing products and services that make life for students and families as easy and as safe as possible.

According to Mintel research on back to school shopping, two in three parents made back to school purchases in-store last year. Pandemic concerns mean a lot more of parents’ back to school shopping will move online, most likely to Amazon and mass merchandiser e-commerce sites. Even before the pandemic, just under half of parents said they wanted to see more brands and retailers offer fast (eg same, next day) delivery for back to school shopping in 2020. These expectations will be even greater now, and most parents will expect this fast shipping to be free.

However, recent events have drawn greater attention to the fragility of small businesses and the important role they play in communities. As a result, some parents may be inspired to avoid mass merchandisers for their back to school shopping. Local retailers should be prepared to help parents easily find lists of supplies required by their children’s schools and offer same-day curbside pickup for online orders.

Kristen Boesel is a Mintel Senior Analyst for Mintel’s Lifestyles Reports.

Ariel Horton is a Mintel Analyst for Mintel’s Lifestyles and Leisure Reports.