By ERIN ROLL
For Montclair Local

It’s just under a month before students in Montclair, and across the country, start to return to school.

For many of them, getting school supplies and other things they need for the first day back might be a challenge. So local and regional groups are collecting backpacks and raising money to buy school supplies to help them. 

Montclair resident Kimya Nilsen for the past six years has organized a local school supplies drive for Operation Backpack, a regional project conducted by Volunteers of America that provides backpacks and school supplies to children and teens whose families are living in shelters for the homeless and domestic violence survivors in the New York area. 

The goal for the Montclair drive is to raise $15,000. As of Monday, Aug. 2, it had raised a little over $5,650. According to Operation Backpack’s fundraising page, $100 can buy supplies for five pre-K or kindergarten students, or four elementary school students; $200 can buy supplies for four middle school or high school students. 

Nilsen noted that older students require more supplies, like graphing calculators, that are more expensive. She said many donors like to pick out backpacks with cute designs geared toward younger children, but Operation Backpack is especially in need of backpacks more suitable for older students. 

In the past, Operation Backpack accepted physical donations of school supplies. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization changed its donation policy. Instead, donors can give empty backpacks, along with money that Operation Backpack would use to buy prepacked school supply kits. 

Donors can drop off new backpacks at four locations:

  • The General Store at Cornerstone Montclair: 198 Bellevue Ave.
  • Weichert Realtors Upper Montclair: 272 Bellevue Ave.
  • Yarnia: Watchung Plaza, 127 Watchung Ave.
  • YMCA of Montclair: 25 Park St. 

The National Retail Federation expects that families with school-aged children across the United States will spend $37.1 billion on back-to-school supplies in 2021, with an average of $849 per household, an increase from last year’s record of $33.9 billion, and $59 more per household.

Electronics are expected to be the biggest spending category, followed by clothing and shoes. 

“The pandemic forced parents and their school-aged children to quickly adapt to virtual learning, and they did it with an incredible amount of resolve and flexibility,” Retail Federation President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a statement released July 19. “We enter the new school year with plans to return to the classroom, and retailers are prepared to help Americans find and purchase whatever they need to make this transition as seamless as possible.”

In 2020, the Retail Federation said that families were expected to spend record amounts of money on school supplies, due to school buildings being physically closed and families needing to set up at-home classroom areas as a result. Electronics were the single biggest spending category that year, with laptops the most sought-after item.

In the Montclair schools, students have access to school-provided Chromebooks and hot spots. Students will be allowed to take their devices home in the event of a COVID-19 school closure. 

One of the main school supplies giveaways in Montclair is the annual drive conducted by the Montclair Sentinels 16-87, an association of Montclair police officers of color. 

On Aug. 29, the Sentinels will hold their annual school supplies giveaway for Montclair families at Glenfield Park and the Wally Choice Community Center from noon to 4 p.m. The Sentinels have partnered with local organizations such as the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp. to plan the event each year. 

The giveaway includes games, activities like face painting, and food and snacks. 

“Our partnership has provided school supplies for over 1,000 youth of our community in the past few years. We look forward to continuing this community event, and with your assistance, we hope to make it even greater this year,” Detective Anjannette Sanders, the Sentinels’ vice president, said in a letter sent out on July 8. 

The United Way of Northern New Jersey, which includes Montclair in its coverage area, will be conducting its Tools for School drive through Aug. 16. 

The organization provides aid and assistance to poverty-level families and for families known as ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed). For many of these families, affording school supplies can be a challenge in a normal school year, but the pandemic has created additional hardships. 

“United Way Tools for School offers companies, groups, clubs, places of worship, families and individuals the opportunity to provide students in need with basic school supplies,” said Kiran Handa Gaudioso, CEO of United Way of Northern New Jersey. “Following a year of learning loss due to the pandemic, showing up with the tools needed to start the school year on the right track is more important than ever before.”

In 2020, the United Way of Northern New Jersey collected $190,000 worth of school supplies and distributed them to 43 elementary and middle schools and 16 nonprofit agencies.   

As with Operation Backpack, the United Way is collecting backpacks prefilled with age-appropriate supplies, but donations of individual supplies and new, age-appropriate backpacks are also welcome. Personal care items for young children and gift cards that can be used to purchase shoes and clothing are also needed. 

The complete supply list is available on United Way’s website, unitedwaynnj.org. Click on “Take Action” and then on “Signature Drives.”