Some Bay families are preparing for a tough start to the term as the stress of back to school costs begins to settle in.
Dozens of Bay schoolkids are on children's charity Variety's waiting list to get funding for basic essentials including uniform and stationery for 2021 - and the region's schools will receive more than 200,000 items of KidsCan food in the first term.
Meanwhile, low decile schools are reducing stationery costs, sourcing cheaper uniforms, dropping fees and ensuring parents know there is food support at school.
Salvation Army Rotorua corps officer Kylie Overbye said the usual influx of people needing help after the Christmas and New Year break had settled.
However, she said there had been "a few murmurs of concern" from people needing help with back-to-school costs.
"This is expected this time of year, as sometimes children need a uniform or a device for school, and that can be a little concerning for families that don't have any reserves for these kinds of expenses."
Overbye said everyone was aware of the concerns and uncertainty of Covid-19 and she advised people to work to realistic budgets, let go of "wants" and put money aside for what's needed.
"We recommend that people start the year well by being a bit forward-thinking about what they can do in preparation for potential hard times should they come upon us."
Rotorua's Sunset Primary School principal Eden Chapman said the school only charged for school uniforms.
"Everything else is free," he said. "We provide lunches, breakfasts and only $30 for a new school T-shirt if they need it.
"If a child is new to the school you can kit your kid out for about $100 to $120."
Chapman said the school introduced free stationery and lunches last year and also worked with Work and Income to support families on benefits.
The school also didn't charge for school trips and supplied togs for children who didn't have any or couldn't afford their own.
"It's about making sure that there are just no barriers to education and there's no reason not to be at school," he said.
"We haven't charged school fees for a long time. We do a lot to look after our families."
Tauranga's Merivale School principal Tom Paekau said the primary school had decided to make it easier for all whānau with back-to-school costs in 2021 through stationery reductions.
"We also have generous sponsorship from members of our community who wish to remain anonymous that we can use to assist whānau in other areas if needed."
Paekau said the school also participated in the Breakfast in Schools, Fruit in Schools and Lunch in Schools programmes.
The Ministry of Education had also been "very generous" to all schools in terms of its Covid-19 response, he said, so preparing for back to school was "business as usual".
"As with all schools, we have set dates aside to assist with smooth transitioning back to school.
"The first week is two days, the second week is three days so we are easing into the first school term of 2021.
"We noticed that after the first lockdown, the vast majority of students and whanau were really just wanting a sense of grounding, routine and normality which, thankfully, schools are able to provide. We expect this to continue in 2021."
Paekau said any whānau who needed help with back-to-school costs should contact their schools.
"There are many ways schools can assist both effectively and confidentially."
Rotorua Budget Advisory Service manager Pakanui Tuhura's tip was to talk to the schools about second-hand uniforms or ways to minimise costs, such as a lunch-in-school programme.
Tuhura also suggested carpooling for the safe drop-off and pick-up of school children, as it saves on fuel and car maintenance.
He also suggested saving a few dollars a week for something needed later in the year.
"Be optimistic and plan for positive things in 2021. Money can be a trigger to a lot of negative behaviour so get control of it and that will be one less thing to worry or stress over."
Tuhura said the start of the year had been "really busy" for the Budget Advisory, with people coming in for advice and budgeting around Kiwisaver hardship applications.
"Although we would like to be positive in 2021 people are already starting to find it hard especially if they parked issues and problems over the Christmas break."
Variety chief executive Susan Glasgow said the charity supported 471 Bay children through its Kiwi Kid Sponsorship Programme - about 8 per cent of the 5679 children supported nationwide.
The KKS programme matches a child with a sponsor whose funding provides basic and school essentials including uniform, shoes, stationery, camp or sports fees.
Glasgow said 29 Bay children were on the waiting list.
"These are children whose families are struggling to make ends meet and who face overwhelming costs at the start of the school year.
"Without the support they need, these young people will start or go back to school without the tools to learn and fully participate in class, causing them to feel different or ashamed.
"They will look on as their friends join sports teams or go to school camp. In extreme cases some young New Zealanders won't start school at all, they are the ones most at risk of falling behind."
Glasgow said Covid-19 had made it worse for families already struggling.
"The cost of going back to school for a caregiver can be anywhere from $500 to $1000 to cover the cost of a new uniform and digital device, this is well beyond the means of families who are already experiencing financial hardship."
KidsCan chief executive Julie Chapman said Bay schools will be receiving 214,002 items of KidsCan food in the first term, up from 109,105 in Term 1 last year.
Research for KidsCan by Colmar Brunton on food insecurity in schools found "teachers are getting hit from all angles" with the job consuming their time, effort and money as they take care of child welfare before they can teach.
"The impact is huge. Some [children] won't make it to school at all. Others arrive wet, in dirty clothes, feeling embarrassed, stressed, and exhausted," she said.
"They can't participate in class like their peers, and miss out on camps, sport and other extracurricular activities. This is too big a burden for our young people to bear."