The bad news for parents’ pocketbooks is that the cost of school supplies is rising, and some families may even incur debt this year outfitting kids for the classroom. The good news is there are a number of ways Oregon Catholic schools and local organizations help parents foot the bill. But there’s a caveat. Not everyone is aware of the options.

“There are a lot of resources out there for families; it’s knowing how to search for them and how to get them,” said Sarai Rodriguez, who supports youth and family programs at El Programa Hispano Católico. For immigrant and refugee communities, there are added challenges securing items, she said.

A decade ago, U.S. households spent an estimated $604 on back-to-school supplies for their K-12 students, according to the National Retail Federation. The figure includes clothing and basic electronics.

By 2019 the total was about $697, and in 2020, a year many students learned virtually, it was $789. Though parents put off purchasing new clothes and backpacks for their homebound youths last year, they loaded up on electronics. This year it’s estimated families will spend an average of $849 as most children return to the classroom.

A number of factors have contributed to the uptick. There are longer school supply lists, which include the pandemic-era additions of masks and cleaning supplies. And as COVID-19 infection rates rise, some parents feel they must be prepared for multiple scenarios — in-person classes, hybrid or fully remote.

Shortages and higher shipping costs add to the price tag. Transportation from countries such as China have become substantially more expensive during the pandemic, and retail behemoths have struggled to secure spots in shipping containers as they attempt to restock following pandemic-caused supply chain disruptions.

Because demand is higher than it was a year ago, retailers are discounting less, consumer and retail experts say, and inflation is also in the mix.

The overall result: U.S. consumers are paying an estimated $37.1 billion in back-to-school supplies this year, up more than $3 billion from last year, according to the National Retail Federation.

For some families, the annual increases are not a substantial burden; for others, they are a sizable strain.

LendingTree, an online loan marketplace, conducted a survey of 1,000 parents with children under 18, and roughly a third of respondents said they expected to go into debt this year due to the cost of school supplies.

It’s unlikely parents with students enrolled in western Oregon Catholic schools would face such a predicament, say school staff.

“If a family did share they were struggling, we’d figure out a way to help,” said Mary Haluska, principal of St. John the Apostle School in Oregon City.

Catholic schools in the Portland Archdiocese address school supply costs in different ways.

Haluska has not heard of St. John the Apostle families concerned about cost increases this year but said the school would respond to need on a case-by-case basis. “No child would need to come to school without sufficient supplies,” she said.

At St. Anne in Grants Pass, there are no supply lists sent to families. Instead there’s a $250 book and supply fee that families pay by August. “That covers everything,” said Shawna Prestianni, school office manager. She then uses the funds to stock classrooms. “We try to keep it basic unless a teacher needs something special,” said Prestianni, who’s a deal-nabbing pro.

The $250 can be difficult for some families, however, especially those with multiple children. But the parish and school have a strong partnership, and parishioners often will cover a supply fee after reading about a need in the parish bulletin.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 cleaning products like Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer will put a dent in the school budget this year. “We are figuring we’ll need to double if not triple what we spend on supplies for cleaning,” Prestianni said.

Diane Ramsperger, principal of St. Matthew School in Hillsboro, said her staff have noticed the increased costs of school supplies. This year, they opted to roll the expenses into tuition. As at St. Anne, they purchase items for all classrooms.

St. Andrew Nativity in Northeast Portland is a tuition-free school for low-income families, so there’s a need for assistance every year, said Isis Sanchez, administrative assistant. She noticed the costs bump this summer but said the school will aid families as it always does.

Members of the school community regularly step in to help, too. Randy Dollar, head running coach at Nativity, “generously goes off the list we send out and buys what he can,” she said.

While some Oregon public school districts have a $25 supply fee for families and then buy items in bulk, public school parents can spend many hours and dollars tracking down required items. An increasing number of lists require dozens of specific and at times expensive supplies. Lists include particular brands — Elmer’s glue, Ticonderoga pencils, Prang watercolors. 

Catholic Charities volunteers pack school-supply bags for young residents of an affordable housing complex in Sandy. (Courtesy Catholic Charities of Oregon)

For some schools it’s a budget issue; as education budgets shrink so do their supply closets.

Oregon organizations from Catholic nonprofits to grocery stores have programs to assist families with those long lists. Safeway and Albertsons organized school supply drives and donation efforts this summer. SUN (Schools Uniting Neighborhoods) programs serve lower-income families in the Portland region and offer many resources, including back-to-school supplies.

Rodriguez, at El Programa Hispano, said while there are many agencies giving away supplies, gaps remain. Immigrant and refugee families and parents with limited English may not know help exists, or they may not have transportation to pick up supplies. El Programa Hispano reached portions of such populations this summer — distributing more than 175 backpacks.

“There needs to be more streamlining and better promotion of and communication about existing efforts,” said Rodriguez, for example reaching people on popular social media sites.

Catholic Charities of Oregon for many years has held a back-to-school drive for school-age residents of Kateri Park, a cluster of affordable housing units near the nonprofit’s main offices in Southeast Portland. Approximately 80% of residents are immigrants or refugees from parts of Africa, Burma, Iraq and Afghanistan.

This year Catholic Charities was awarded a grant from the Oregon Community Foundation, and it used a portion of the funds to expand the school donations to eight of its affordable housing locations.

“We set a goal to serve all 300 kids who live in those residences,” said Sally Erickson, who manages the resident services team. “It was an ambitious goal.”

But staff, donors, volunteers and community members rallied. Erickson and her staff collected 300 individual supply lists and set to work fulfilling each one. It was a complicated process. “Some kids needed one kind of binder while others needed specific kinds of pens or headphones,” she said.

The agency ended up providing supplies and backpacks to nearly 350 students, who included youths from several other Catholic Charities programs.

One of the best pathways out of poverty is education, said Erickson, and educational enrichment programs as well as the proper learning supplies “are some of the tools that help kids succeed.”

She recalled a woman who’d come into Catholic Charities just the day before. She had five daughters and was seeking asylum. The mother recently had given birth and was not yet able to work.

“There was no way she could buy anything for her kids,” said Erickson. “We were able to provide school supplies, and I believe that will make such a difference.”