With school supplies getting more expensive, what options are available for parents and students battling affordability?

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Roughly 15,000 kids, a majority who are experiencing homelessness, received a free backpack at Volunteer of America’s 20th annual Operation Backpack drive on Aug. 31.
Photo Volunteers of America of Greater New York

Patricia Hamilton wasn’t sure if she would be able to afford her three sons’ — two Bronx fifth-graders and a third-grader — necessary school supplies to start the new 2022-23 school year this Thursday. Hamilton said she felt “ashamed” when she couldn’t afford to get her sons their desired backpacks of choice — a Spiderman and WWE-themed backpack — both of which far exceeded her budget.

“These are my babies, they deserve the world, and I can’t give them that,” said Hamilton, a South Bronx resident. “I used to work every day, but then I lost my full-time job, and I would do anything for my boys but when I saw how much everything was, and how it was out (of) my budget, my heart sank.”

Quite simply classroom must-haves which range anywhere from pens and pencils to Sharpies and glue has become increasingly out of reach for some families, and inflation has driven up the prices of school supplies by 3.11% compared to last year.

Over the past few weeks, free backpack and school supply drives have become a haven for parents facing an affordability problem for the upcoming school year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American families are spending an estimated $11 billion more on school supplies than in 2019, a cost increase of $170 per family, where school supplies are on average about $80 per child.

Those costs weight even heavier for the nearly 15,000 New York City public school students who experienced homelessness last school year, according to the city Department of Homeless Services and Department of Education.

Despite all the financial and social burdens affecting 10-year-old Alex, who has been in the city’s shelter system since 2018 when both his parent began struggling with substance abuse, he told the Bronx Times his back-to-school fear is the ridicule of not having proper or “nice” school supplies or accessories.

“Sometimes kids can make fun of you (if you) don’t show up to school with a nice backpack, or nice clothes,” said Alex, whose name is being withheld at the request of his family. “I didn’t really live at one place last year. I had dirty clothes and hand-me-downs and I know my family is trying their best, but I think me and my friends worry about what people will say about (our accessories).”

According to the National Retail Federation, families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average $864 on school items during that period. That’s about $15 more than last year.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, families are spending an estimated $11 billion more on school supplies than in 2019, a cost increase of $170 per family. Photo Volunteers of America of Greater New York

On Aug. 31, Volunteers of America-Greater New York (VOA-Greater New York) held its 20th annual Operation Backpack campaign — a community-wide effort with the goal of ensuring that every child living in a New York City homeless shelter has the school supplies they need to succeed in the classroom and beyond.

Volunteers told the Bronx Times that for 15,000 kids serviced through the campaign, being able to pick out a backpack of their choosing is a monumental experience for them and a joy parallel to the holiday season.

“Parents see that joy on their children’s faces and seeing the parents being moved to tears and hearing the parents express such gratitude for what they were doing and how hard it has been for them to afford even the basic school supplies is powerful, ” said Ericia Antoine, director of corporate engagement for VOA-Greater New York.

Alex was able to receive a new Hulk backpack last Wednesday and he hopes his new digs will impress his friends and teachers.

Over the past two decades, VOA-Greater New York, an anti-poverty organization, has given tens of thousands of children experiencing homelessness a sense of normalcy during the back-to-school season through Operation Backpack.

“It’s impossible to have a successful school year if you don’t have what you need in order to thrive in the classroom,” said Antoine. “When kids don’t have the supplies that they need, they can’t complete their homework, they can’t participate in class and ultimately that’s gonna affect their ability to graduate high school.”

Throughout the borough, backpack and school supply drives — such as ones in Morris Park where 500 pre-filled backpacks were provided for the boys and girls at PS/MS 5: The Port Morris School of Community Leadership — hope to put kids on an equal playing field this school year.

City Councilmember Diana Ayala, of East Harlem, was on hand to deliver backpacks to students in need on Aug. 31. Photo Volunteers of America of Greater New York

“As a school community we believe that every child deserves the opportunity to walk into school on their first day having a sense of confidence with a backpack full of school supplies and knowing that someone believes in them,” said Danielle Keane, principal of PS/MS 5. “Every backpack has a story and without a sharpened pencil, that story will never be told.”

Another group of students facing affordability problems when it comes to the upcoming school year are recent asylum-seeking migrants from Texas who the city has vowed to transition into the NYC school system through a multi-agency effort called Project Open Arms.

According to the Project Open Arms nine-page document, students are supposed to get school transportation from shelters, as well as backpacks and school supplies. But challenges will still remain, and increase, particularly for students without reliable access to housing, internet and other means to finish schoolwork.

“Students are going back to school and, yes, we provide them with the school supplies that they need but these students are still facing challenges that many of their fellow classmates are not,” said Antoine. “They will need extra support, extra connectivity at the shelters that they’re living in to do their homework, tutorial support. And we want to make sure they are not forgotten about during the school year.”

Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes

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