This time of year tends to leave my kids feeling bittersweet and my husband and me ecstatic. But 2020’s back to school will be … different. As a NYC parent of a rising 7th grader and 9th grader, I face a year with my kids in different schools, in different boroughs, with different schedules and different needs. And though the expectation (right now) is for some balance of remote and in-person learning, we know that can change at any minute.
With students, teachers, and parents all grappling with COVID-19-related uncertainty, and schools around the world still deciding how much learning will be remote or in-person, finding the right tech and tools to help kids succeed during this school year is even more confusing than usual. The one constant we can be sure of is that technology will be more important than ever this year. Here are just a few suggestions from my experience as a longtime tech writer and parent to help keep kids engaged, organized, and active in these strangest of times.
The best back-to-school laptops
The most basic and least-expensive option is a Chromebook, which is simply a laptop that runs on the Google Chrome operating system. These laptops are accessible for younger kids because their work lives on the Google cloud instead of a hard drive, which means they will not have to worry about losing work in progress or misplacing files (something that has triggered a few historic meltdowns in our household). And because all you have to do is sign in with your Google account and type, even the youngest set get a feeling of independence. Strategist writer Jordan Bowman likes the HP Chromebook 14” AMD A4-Series Chromebook because it’s lightweight and inexpensive, and the 14-inch screen is a good size for long-distance learning.
If you have a kid in high school or college, the ultraportable MacBook Air is a solid choice. The newest 13-inch version comes with the more comfortable, backlit Magic Keyboard (a huge improvement over Apple’s recent and terrible butterfly keyboards), plenty of hard drive space and processor speed, and a battery that lasts all day. And, until September 29, if you buy through Apple it comes bundled with a free pair of AirPods, which also set off a mini battle between my boys — until my husband ended the chaos by claiming them for himself.
It’s more expensive, but this versatile, Windows-based laptop has a 13.5-inch, super high-resolution touchscreen, and its unique, detachable clamshell design also lets you use it as a tablet. I also like the 3:2 aspect ratio, as opposed to the more common 16:9, which makes the screen more like a square than a rectangle and ends up feeling less smushed and cramped. If you ask my boys, the best feature is the powerful graphics engine, which lets them connect their remotes and play Xbox anytime, anywhere — just as soon as they’re done with their schoolwork, of course.
Sometimes my kids want a larger viewing experience for online video classes and conferences. That’s why we like to keep at least one monitor in the house to connect to our laptops. The larger format is especially nice for their live classes, allowing them to better see both their teacher and their classmates. A bigger screen also works nicely for creative projects. This budget monitor is immersive, thanks to the slight curve, and strikingly slim and light, making it easy to move from room-to-room.
The best back-to-school phones and tablets
Of all the screens they have, my kids would probably have the hardest time going without their smartphones. During quarantine, phones were lifelines to their friends and the world — and though I’m still a stickler for parental controls and limits (I’m looking at you, TikTok), allowing them time to connect is essential. The affordable 4a is the perfect smartphone for the younger set, with a 5.8-inch OLED display, a first-class camera, respectable stereo speakers and a battery that can last up to 24 hours — all for under $400.
As a voracious reader, I switched to an e-reader many years ago — especially once I realized I’d run out of space to store more books in my Brooklyn apartment. Now that my kids are reading novels, they have come to appreciate, and covet, my lightweight, Kindle Oasis. Thankfully, the Kindle Kids Edition got them what they needed and kept my Oasis out of their hands. This child-friendly 10th-generation Kindle is WiFi-enabled and comes with a magnetic cover, a year’s subscription of Amazon’s FreeTime Unlimited with parental controls (giving them unlimited access to included books, as well as games, apps and videos on other devices) and my favorite feature, a two-year unlimited warranty. It also has Bluetooth, so they can listen to Audible audiobooks on any paired speaker. We use the Libby app to borrow digital titles from our local library, which is a simple, worry-free way for the kids to try new things they couldn’t find in the Freetime library. One bummer for my older son is that Manga doesn’t translate well to e-readers, so he still has to buy those separately.
Editors’ note: Although Amazon won’t have stock until sometime in October, Best Buy’s Kindles are available to ship today.
Weighing less than a pound, with a massive 10.5-inch Retina display and the same A12 processor as the iPad Pro, the iPad Air is the most sought-after device in our house. It even has a headphone jack, which is a luxury in this Bluetooth-dominated world. The kids use it to lie on the couch and watch YouTube or play games, but also to catch up on math with Khan Academy or their French with Duolingo. When creativity hits, they can edit skateboarding videos on VSCO, sketch and paint original designs with Procreate, design 3D models with Shapr, or even make their own music on GarageBand.
The best back-to-school accessories
After getting tired of constantly having to buy new ink cartridges for our printer, even though they clearly hadn’t run out, we upgraded to the Mega Tank. This mid-volume printer, scanner and copier has ink tanks that are easily refilled with mess-free ink bottles. An extra bonus is the huge main tray, which holds up to 350 sheets of paper.
Editors’ note: Although Amazon won’t have stock until mid-October, Adorama’s printeres are available to ship today.
Laptops are a great solution for kids, but their compact keyboards don’t make it easy to type. That’s why we invested in this sleek, wireless, and ergonomic keyboard. Though it took a little time for them to get used to the funky design, once they realized how much easier it was to use, it was hard to go back to a plain, flat keyboard. And, bonus, I like knowing the design helps keep their little wrists safe.
This fall, with no idea how much of their school will actually be in person, we’re counting on the Fitbit Versa 2 to help keep the boys’ activity levels up. The sleek design keeps it from looking cheap, it comes with a selection of customizable watch faces, and the breakdown of fitness metrics is clear and concise. The biggest asset for our kids is the Fitbit Coach app, which gives them access to personalized video workouts. After downloading it onto the watch, they can set a daily goal and choose from a hearty selection of workouts, from 7 to 60 minutes long. This not only got them motivated, but also gave them the freedom to workout anytime, anywhere. We ponied up the $40 annual fee for Premium membership, but the free basic program gives you one workout a week.
Nothing teaches you the value of peace and quiet quite like sharing an apartment with three other people who are home all day. We love these wireless headphones because they are well padded, lightweight and have Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant built in. And, depending on what the boys are working on, they can choose the level of noise cancelling they want or need. Hip hop and math equations usually means we’re totally tuned out, though when they use it as a headset for gaming, we expressly force them to lower it so our shrill parent voices can still shine through. They’re also great for watching movies, TV, and videos and even taking Zoom calls.
One of my biggest parent pet peeves is when kid