With many schools across the country either closed or operating under a hybrid model to prevent the spread of COVID-19, students and their guardians alike are bracing themselves for a fall semester of distance learning — and consequently, a back-to-school shopping shakeup.
In addition to setting up a study station and stocking up on traditional school supplies (like your No. 2 pencils and your spiral notebooks), the move to virtual classrooms means investing in a laptop, wireless headphones, computer accessories, and other gadgets that make it possible to participate in full-time online learning. (Unsurprisingly, the National Retail Foundation expects school supply spending to reach a record-high $33.99 billion this year, up from $26.2 billion in 2019.)
If you need help navigating this unfamiliar territory without breaking the bank, don’t fret: Below, we’ve compiled a definitive (and affordable) list of all the distance learning essentials every student should have for the coming months.
1. A cheap laptop
A decent computer should be at the very top of your back-to-school shopping list since it’ll be your (or your kids’) lifeline to the remote classroom. Still, anything that costs over $1,000 (say, a tricked-out MacBook Pro) is probably overkill for how you’ll be using it. Instead, opt for something versatile yet affordable like the Asus Chromebook Flip C434, a lightweight 14-inch laptop/tablet hybrid from last year. With a speedy Intel Core m3-8100Y processor, a full HD touchscreen display, a backlit keyboard, plenty of ports, and 4GB RAM with 64GB of storage space, it’s an incredible bang for your buck. (Fun fact: An earlier model of the same machine has made two of Mashable’s best-of lists.) Buy it on Amazon for $569.99, and you’ll get 100GB of Google One cloud storage space for free for 12 months.
2. A webcam
Another top spot on your shopping list should go to a decent webcam that ensures your picture and audio are crystal clear while you’re participating in virtual discussions. Most newer laptops have one built in, but it wouldn’t hurt to upgrade to something like Logitech’s C270 HD Webcam, a 720p widescreen camera with automatic light correction, a built-in noise-reducing mic, and a formidable 4.5/5-star customer rating on Amazon with over 2,900 reviews. At $54.99, it a great value.
3. A WiFi hotspot
When your classes and course materials are entirely online, a reliable WiFi connection is also a must. Living in an area with poor internet coverage, learning on the go, and needing multiple simultaneous connections without any speed loss are all good reasons to look into a WiFi hotspot. (You can always use your phone’s hotspot mode, of course, but it’ll eat up the battery life fast and won’t support as many devices as a dedicated hotspot.) It’s easiest to set up a hotspot through your current mobile carrier, but if you’re starting from scratch, the Verizon Jetpack MiFi 8800L comes highly recommended from both PCMag and Wirecutter in terms of a fast LTE network and a long-lasting battery. Get it at Best Buy for $199.99.
4. A desk with plenty of storage space
It’s so tempting to complete all of your coursework from the comfort of your couch or bed. (Most of us who have been fortunate enough to work from home amid the coronavirus pandemic have been in the same boat.) But trust us — setting up a dedicated work station that’s separate from the rest of your living space can do wonders for your productivity. Have kids? Then you’ll definitely want to define the remote learning space. As far as desks go, the Rustic Lift Top model from Tribesigns is a stellar choice: It’s one of the very few convertible (sitting/standing) desks out there with ample storage space for school supplies, and at $199.98 on Amazon, it’s totally budget-friendly.
5. An ergonomic desk chair
If lengthy lectures and study sessions will be keeping you sedentary for hours at a time, consider investing in an ergonomic desk chair to avoid back pain. We’re partial to Office Star’s High Back ProGrid FreeFlex Seat, a durable and breathable chair with lumbar support and plenty of seat and tilt adjustments to promote good posture. (FWIW, this same chair nabbed a spot on our roundup of the best gaming chairs — it’s comfortable enough even for marathon sessions and tournaments, which is really saying something.) Get it on Amazon for $189.
6. An adjustable laptop riser
Speaking of posture: A laptop stand or riser is key to preventing neck strain if you’re hunched over a computer all day. The no-frills Ventilated Adjustable Laptop Stand from AmazonBasics features a metal-mesh platform and a built-in cord organizer to keep your laptop cool and your desktop clutter-free, respectively — get it on Amazon for $22.50.
7. A printer
Even if your classes are entirely virtual, chances are you’ll want a physical copy of a syllabus, worksheet, study guide, or practice exam at some point — lots of us learn better that way. The ENVY 6055 is a brand new wireless printer from HP that can print, scan, and copy documents, making it an all-in-one solution for those of us who no longer have access to a school’s library or student center. Get it at Best Buy for $129.99.
8. Wireless headphones
A pair of headphones can be a godsend when you’re trying to concentrate, especially if you share a household with lots of people and/or vocal pets. They’ll also help your kiddos better focus on what the teacher is saying. With Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) technology that blocks out ambient distractions, a ridiculous 30-hour battery life, and an extremely reasonable price tag, the wireless Cowin E7s are an excellent pick for industrious students. A black pair will run you $59.99 on Amazon, but you can upgrade to blue, green, purple, red, or white for just $10 more.
9. A pair of blue light glasses
Spending the majority of your waking hours staring at a computer, tablet, or smartphone is a foolproof way to develop “digital eye strain,” or DES, which leads to sore eyes, dryness, blurry vision, and headaches. But it doesn’t have to be that way: By popping on a pair of glasses with blue light-filtering lenses, you’ll protect your eyes from overexposure to screens’ harmful blue wavelengths (and ideally be able to focus better). Zenni Optical offers the perfect balance of style, durability, and affordability in its collection of blue light glasses — order a pair for as low as $16.95.
10. Cloud storage space
All of your digital textbooks and coursework should have a permanent home in case you need to reference them later for a capstone project or exam. We prefer a cloud storage solution for two reasons: One, because you can’t always rely on a device’s internal memory, and two, because it’s easy to forget to manually back up your files. Google Drive is both the obvious and best choice: Just by creating a Google account, you get 15GB of free cloud storage space on top of access to the G Suite (including Gmail, Google Docs, Meet, Sheets, and Slides). If you need even more room, a Google One subscription starts at just $1.99 a month for 100GB.
11. Microsoft 365
Though more and more institutions are making the switch to the G Suite, Microsoft’s lineup of productivity apps is still so ubiquitous, it’s definitely worth installing. Subscriptions typically start at $69.99 a year, but depending on the institution you or your kids attend, you may be able to sign up for Office 356 Education for free using your school email address. (That particular suite includes Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Publisher, and Access.)
12. A website blocker
Even if we weren’t living amid all of this (*gestures broadly at the world*), it’s alarmingly easy to get distracted when your learning space is also your living/recreational space. At the very least, consider installing a website blocker like StayFocusd, a free Chrome extension, so that you aren’t tempted to doomscroll Twitter when you should be studying. (For more of our favorite productivity apps, click here.)
13. A planner
Having the structure of a physical planner to manage your homework assignments, class schedule, and broader academic goals can be grounding. Blue Sky’s 8.5- by 11-inch planner for the upcoming school year features monthly and weekly view pages with plenty of room for writing, note-taking, and list-making — get it on Amazon for $9.99.
14. A reliable coffee maker
Whether you’re a student or a student’s guardian, coffee is going to be crucial for getting through these next few months (or more) of distance learning. Hamilton Beach’s 2-Way Brewer is a hybrid machine that can whip up both single cups and full carafes of java at a number of brew strengths, depending on how much caffeine you need to get through that last bit of homework. Get it on Amazon for $59.99.