Our favorite back-to-school gear for remote learning

15 Sep, 2020 John Mendoza No Comments


With millions of students moving to remote learning in 2020, the back-to-school transition is looking and feeling dramatically different this year. But elementary, middle, high school and even college students are going to need many of the same supplies as always — plus a handful of new ones specific to the ongoing pandemic

My kids have started attending school in-person two mornings each week with the rest of the time spent “learning” at home. We’ve been stocking up on the basics — from pencils to notebooks to art supplies — as well as more modern infrastructure including a robust Wi-Fi network, headphones and a versatile charger to keep all those devices up and running. 

With input from parents around CNET, we’ve rounded up some of our favorite back-to-school supplies, home office equipment and educational gear that will enhance online learning. Here are our top picks — but we’d love to hear about any good distance-learning supplies and hacks you’ve cooked up in the comments.

Chris Monroe/CNET

With family members working and learning from home this fall, household wireless networks will be tested like never before. We installed a Google Nest Wifi system at our house this spring, and have been impressed with its speedy performance — the connection is perceptibly faster, more expansive and more robust than our prior setup. It’s easy to set up and configure and one of the range-extending Wifi points doubles as a Google Assistant smart speaker. That said, keep an eye on the Eero mesh networking set — the three-node version of that sometimes drops as low as $200, with a freebie Echo speaker thrown in.

Read our Nest Wifi review.

Some school-issued tablets aren’t that great. The entry-level 10.2-inch iPad isn’t cheap, starting at $329, but it’s a terrific all-around device that’s versatile enough to serve as a primary educational tool — especially when paired with a solid keyboard like the $100 Logitech Keyboard Case — and entertainment center for any elementary or middle schooler. And it’s often on sale for under $300 ($250 to $280 is the sweet spot).

Read our review of the Apple iPad.

ButtOn Chair

Asking a kid to sit at a desk (or kitchen table) all day runs counter to everything we know about human and child physiology. (That’s why standing desks have become so popular in recent years.) The ButtOn chair is explicitly designed to let kids move (a little) while seated at their desk. A study from Texas A&M shows that kids who move and stand more in the classroom burn more calories, score higher on standardized tests and are more engaged. My kids have been using these chairs — and they’ve helped them both stay put and stop slumping so much. Recommended.

Amazon

There are a lot of lousy combination cover-and-stands out there, and many kids will be challenged to keep their tablet properly positioned, whether they’re typing, swiping or on camera. This simple, sturdy stand should accommodate most iPads (and other tablets) and is both vertically and horizontally adjustable.

Old Navy

Whether or not your kids are in a real or virtual classroom, the CDC recommends wearing a face mask or face covering for any outing. Kids lose things. So stock up now.

Check out CNET’s roundup of kids’ face masks.

Amazon

Some younger kids aren’t big fans of the over-the-ears masks. They may be happier with a loop-and-tie style mask — but they may not be able to tie a knot. These little toggles help secure a mask without having to tie it on.

Amazon

Kids going to school in-person may be restricted from sharing school supplies. The problem: every kid will have to bring — and keep track of — their own stuff. The solution: label everything — including clothes and supplies.

Sarah Tew/CNET

With parents and kids sharing the same workspace, everyone needs to have their own pair of headphones — to block out ambient noise, follow along with a lesson and listen to music (for concentration purposes). Skullcandy’s Riff retails for around $50; its pillowlike ear cups are comfortable enough to wear for a complete school day and it has great sound quality and plump bass. Check out CNET’s roundup of the best headphones for working at home for recommendations tailored to the adults in the house.

Amazon

There are just so many things you can do with a large whiteboard: Use it to highlight the week’s priorities, assign to-dos, work out an equation, capture ideas during a brainstorm — or just draw a funny picture to pierce 2020’s enduring veil of gloom. Regardless of your particular use case, these are the markers you want.

RAVPower

This little portable charger features a USB-C Power Delivery port and a good old-fashioned USB-A port, so it can charge virtually any phone, tablet or wireless headphone. It can also juice up a Nintendo Switch, and even most newer laptops, so long as they have a USB-C power port (like all recent MacBooks). 

Amazon

I’m someone who has strong opinions about pens. I have been using these for decades. Smooth and precise, with no smudging or bleeding. They’re the best. Don’t @ me.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Rocketbook’s reusable notebooks and planners make it easy to send notes, calendar items and other jottings to email or cloud service like Google Drive, Dropbox or Evernote. On the one hand, using the Fusion notebook is just marginally more convenient than taking a photo of any piece of paper and sending it to yourself. But the notebook has a few nice usability touches — you can mark an icon at the bottom of the page to route notes to up to seven different destinations — and the sustainability angle is compelling. Included with the notebook is a nice Pilot FriXion pen (which doubles as an eraser) and a microfiber cloth that effectively wipes pages clean to be used again. Rocketbook also introduced its own version of the popular Panda planner earlier this summer.

Logitech

For the first few months of the pandemic, it was nearly impossible to find a brand name webcam at a decent price. Logitech’s C920 webcam, which is now again available for a reasonable $100(ish), delivers an all-around solid video chat experience with 1080p video and two mics that capture clear and crisp audio. If your student is working from a desktop PC, or even a laptop with a substandard built-in webcam — yes, Apple, we’re looking at you — this is a worthy upgrade.

Home Depot

There are plenty of cheap particle-board desks on Amazon — but they’re low-quality, made in China and more wobbly than you’ll want. A better alternative can be easily assembled using a pair of affordable components: 

  • A large wooden slab (many hardware stores sell unfinished doors)
  • Two sawhorses (though you could also use filing cabinets)

If you can find a slab door at a nearby hardware store, this setup should cost you less than $100. If you can find one that’s deliverable, it may run closer to $160. Either way, that’s a reasonable price for a hardwood tabletop, four sturdy legs and a workspace big enough for any laptop or tablet, art project or lunch break.

Amazon

If your kid sits in front of a white wall or uncovered windows, their webcam will try to balance it out, shrouding them in a silhouette. The solution: Position a light behind their camera that shines on their face. We’ve heard good things about this reasonably priced 10-inch LED ring light.

Amazon

Though most classwork will be digital this year, some students — especially younger kids — prefer to work with pencil and paper. If you’ll be looking for print out assignments every now and then, this is your machine. The HP LaserJet Pro M15w is a great fit for practical, nonfussy tasks and its tiny footprint, measuring about 8 inches deep and 14 inches wide, fits perfectly on a bookshelf. And it connects via Wi-Fi to nearly any device, which means you can print from a laptop, tablet or phone. 

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