This year more than ever will see a completely different list of products in high demand for the back-to-school season. Instead of new backpacks and cute dresses, parents and kids will be looking for pocket-sized hand sanitizer and masks. And replace the priority for a new lunch bag and locker posters with a good computer you can use at home for distance learning and headphones for personal learning.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and regardless of if you or your kids are heading back to actual classes or planning to do distance learning for at least the first semester, technology and other related gear is essential. In fact, it has never been more essential then when we need to practice social distancing and solitary learning more than ever before.
So what do you need? Here’s a rundown of everything you’ll need to make this back-to-school season run as smoothly as possible. Many of these products, it should be noted, would be suitable for those who will be newly working from home as well.
Asus C423 Chromebook
Shortly after the pandemic was declared as such and kids were sent home for distance learning, I embarked on a comprehensive review of several Chromebooks, with the help of my 8-year-old son. Of the four we tested, both of our favourites was the Asus 423, which checks all of the boxes parents and kids would need for a Chromebook. It’s affordable, it has a nice-sized touchscreen and can fold flat (though sadly isn’t totally convertible to be used as a tablet.) The screen resolution is great and it’s perfect for accessing services like Google Classroom, Facebook Messenger, and other important educational apps. Pretty much anything they can get on the Google Play app store, they can get on the Chromebook with the added benefit of a full keyboard and access to Google Docs, Drive, and other software.
Microsoft Surface Go 2
Ideal for older kids, the Surface Go 2 is a compact, lightweight, 2-in-1 convertible that they can use for both work and play. And starting at about $530, it won’t break the bank, either. It comes equipped with a 10.5″ touchscreen, up to 10 hours of battery life, and weighs just 544 grams. Dolby Audio will make it easy to hear video chats with study groups or lectures from the teacher or professor. And it has built-in Wi-Fi with the option for LTE Advanced. Add up to a terabyte of storage to the built-in microSD card reader to store all of your schoolwork locally, and download favourite apps, from social media to video streaming.
Epson EcoTank Printer
I have been a fan and user of the Epson EcoTank line of printers since they were first announced. And the latest models continue to improve on the technology that sees refillable ink reservoirs on the front instead of ink cartridges that only need to be refilled every two years. Yes, based on average use, you won’t ever have to change or buy ink for about 24 months. The ET-2760 all-in-one printer is an affordable option for students. At $380, it can print as well as copy and scan, and includes handy features like auto two-sided and voice-activated printing.
Nano Attack Liquid Glass Shield
Keep a small spray bottle of this protective solution in your backpack along with a microfibre cloth and spray it on surfaces like desks, tables, keyboards, and more before touching them. It leaves a long-lasting nano protective layer that can purportedly keep surfaces protected for up to seven days, destroying microbes on contact. Plus, it’s organic, biodegradeable, and water-based which makes it safe to use on a variety of surfaces.
LG Tone Free True Wireless Earbuds With UVnano Charging Case
True wireless earbuds are a dime a dozen these days, but they can be really convenient for both listening to tunes while out and about and while doing homework at home, watching educational videos or using educational apps, and participating in video lessons for distance learning. The LG HBS-FN6 TONE Free earbuds add a unique spin that will be particularly appreciated this year: they come with a UVnano charging case that uses ultraviolet light to help remove 99.9% of bacteria from the part of the earbud that fits closest to your inner ear after just 10 minutes. The earbuds themselves come with Meridian audio technology and four equalizer sound settings along with an Ambient Sound Mode so you can hear your surroundings when needed without having to remove the buds. With the case, you can get up to 18 hours of listening, and get an hour after just five minutes of charge time. They are IPX4 rated for protection against splashes of water, rain, and sweat. Another appreciated feature: an “earbud finder” tool in the LG TONE&Talk app that can help you find the buds if you misplace them, either via an audible beep if they’re in Bluetooth range or through a last known location on a map. MSRP $200
There are plenty of options when it comes to kids masks, but don’t wait until the last minute or a lot of retailers and online shops could be sold out or delayed in shipments. In addition to retailers like Old Navy, The Gap, and Staples selling washable face masks for kids in various designs as well as solid colours, you can also order them from placeslike Mabel’s Labels, known for making the adhesive and waterproof labels for kids belongings and sites like Etsy. Or, get creative, visit a fabric store, and make your own!
For a limited time, while supplies last, Telus is selling masks featuring cute critters. They come in youth and adult sizes and packs of three for $35 each for kids, $45 each for adults or older kids. They are reusable, dual-layered, and made from 100% recycled polyester on the outside and 100% organic cotton on the inside, adhering to the guidelines set by the Telus Medical Advisory Council. All proceeds will go to the Telus Future Foundation (TFFF) supporting COVID-19 relief efforts across Canada. The masks are available for purchase from the Telus Website as well as in select Telus retail stores.
Never leave home without hand sanitizer in your purse, pocket, or backpack. But bear in mind that many off brands have been found to be unsafe, so refrain from trying to buy the cheapest or most accessible option unless you know it is safe to use. Health Canada has listed all of the disinfectants and hand sanitizers that are safe to use on its website, so refer to this list before picking up a bottle at a killer deal. And make sure to grab both small bottles that can fit in your pocket as well as large ones for home. I usually refill my small bottle from the large one so I’m always well-stocked on the go. Some bottles come with cute carabiner clips so you can always have it on hand, clipped to your belt loop, backpack, or purse straps.
Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Smartphone
A new smartphone is never a bad idea, especially if you’ll be using it more than ever this year for distance learning. The new Galaxy Note20 is a solid choice. It comes with the new S Pen so you can easily jot down notes from class along with deeper integration with Microsoft so they work more seamlessly with Windows PCs. You can sync notes in Samsung Notes from one device to another, convert handwriting, annotate and highlight PDFs, record audio, and organize everything in folders. Use the Microsoft Your Phone app with Link to Windows integration to access mobile apps from a Windows 10 PC to do things like send messages, manage notifications, and more. It starts at $1,400 outright.
Nest Hub Max Smart Display
Consider a smart display to complement your smart speaker for the added benefits the screen can provide, particularly for kids who will be doing distance learning. And the Nest Hub Max is a great option. Why? First, you can now make group video calls on the device, which is ideal for the kids to keep in touch with family members, friends, and classmates. Second, Google has added a feature called Family Bell that is designed to help parents trying to manage the schedules of kids who will be learning from home. While most of the features are audio-based and work with smart speakers like the Google Home Mini as well, there are some added advantages with compatible smart display like this one. Family Bell will play bell reminders throughout the day based on set times when kids should start a new activity, including multiple bells that can go off at different times for different kids. But with a smart display, kids will also see a school-themed video and hear familiar sounds of school, like kids opening up their lockers and shuffling down the hallway. The lights on the display will also flash. There are also fun, new wake-up alarms with voices, music, jokes, facts, and words of encouragement from characters like Hatchimals. Call up a fun fact as well by saying something like “Hey Google, tell me about the animal of the day” and kids can learn about, her how it sounds, and even partake in a challenge, like drawing it. For older kids, they can say things like “Hey Google, help me with my homework” to get suggestions about different historical events, the periodic table, or calculations.
COVID-19 Alert App
The federal government is urging Canadians to download the COVID-19 Alert app, which can advise Canadians if they have been in close contact with someone who has since tested positive for the virus. The app works using Bluetooth technology. As long as a smartphone has Bluetooth on, the app will register any time two people come in proximity of one another (less than two metres for at least 15 minutes) who both have the app. Should someone test positive for COVID-19, a health care professional will provide them with a unique code to input into the app. Once they enter the app, which keeps their identity completely anonymous, anyone who the app detected that person had been in contact with over the last 14 days would be alerted and advised on their recommended next steps. Those steps would likely include monitoring themselves for symptoms, getting tested, and self-quarantining. As with any crowdsourcing app, COVID Alert requires the participation of Canadians in order to work. COVID Alert is for now only available in Ontario but other provincial and territorial health authorities are expected to sign on to use the new software as well, including New Brunswick and British Columbia.
Google Pixel 4a Smartphone
Another smartphone option to consider if the Galaxy Note20 is too rich for your blood is the Google Pixel 4a, which starts at just $479 and includes tons of great photography features, a sizable 5.8″ OLED display, and fun custom wallpapers kids will love. The new Recorder feature will come in handy for students. It connects with Google Docs, allowing you to save and share transcriptions and recordings (English only for now). Live Caption is also a cool feature that automatically captions voice and video calls. And the all-day battery will be appreciated by students who might be out and about on a campus for hours.
Rocketbook Panda Planner
This neat planner saves paper and makes it easy for you to digitize your notes. It has several templates broken down into monthly, weekly, and daily sections for organizing your life. Rocketbook’s patented reusable technology means you can use and re-use the book, again and again. The Planner’s synthetic paper allows you to write smoothly with a Pilot FriXion pen, marker or highlighter and then wipe the page clean with a damp cloth, enabling you to use the notebook again and again. In each of the monthly, weekly and daily sections, the Planner comes with pages designed for setting goals, making plans, end-of-day reviews, managing projects, and tracking habits. The Planner also provides space to write down what’s motivating you, as well as an area for meditation and affirmations. It connects a variety of cloud services including Dropbox, Evernote, Google Drive, Box, iCloud, Slack, e-mail, and more for easy organization, uploading, and sharing capabilities. Use the Rocketbook app to scan notes, transcribe handwriting, and send to your favorite service. Then, erase and use it again. Seven symbols at the bottom of each page act as the magic “buttons” behind Rocketbook’s quick and easy cloud organization. First, assign each icon to the cloud destination of your choice. Then, when you mark that icon on your page, the Rocketbook app automatically files your notes to the right place. The Rocketbook app also crops and enhances each page. It comes in a variety of colours for US$35 in executive size and US$37 in letter size. Notebooks also include one Pilot FriXion pen and microfiber cloth.
Belkin TruePrivacy Screen Protection for MacBooks
If you own a MacBook, whether you’re using it while out and about or just at home, a screen protector is a good idea to ensure you don’t strain your eyes and prevent others from peeking at your private work. It’s an easily removable and reusable privacy protection screen that fits MacBooks. They are easy to remove, wash, and reuse. The TruePrivacy Panel can be used for storage when the protector is not in use, and contains anti-glare technology for best viewing experience. $69
Fitbit Versa 2 Smartwatch
It isn’t the newest smartwatch around but the Fitbit Versa 2 does have a ton of features that can come in handy for students. They can keep track of their daily activity, steps, active minutes, and calories burned along with continuous heart rate, sleep data, and more. Plus, it displays smartphone notifications on the screen and works with Alexa so you can press the side button and ask questions like what’s on your calendar for the day.
Otterbox Ispra Series Apple AirPods Cases
If you’re using your Apple Airpods a lot for distance learning and Zoom meetings, and while walking around campus or school, you’ll appreciate a nice case like this one to keep them protected and ensure you don’t mix yours up with someone else’s. These cases come in a variety of colours and have a grippy bottom for better handling and a hard top to protect the buds from scrapes and bumps. Each case also comes with a carabiner for clipping the buds to your backpack, bag, or belt loop. Wireless charging works through the case. About $30 ea.
Joby GorillaPod Mobile Vlogging Kit
Chances are you might be submitting a lot of video-based assignments this upcoming school year, and a vlogging kit like this one can come in handy. It includes a GorillaPod Mobile Rig, Beamo Mini Led, and Wave Mobile microphone and can easily fit into a backpack to take with you. Use the myJOBY app to control lighting and get filming! About US$200