Here are Cowen's top retail picks for a challenging back-to-school season

Scott Mlyn | CNBC

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As September looms, the nation is debating the best way to restart the school year in the new coronavirus era. 

Whether schools are in-person or online in the fall, "back to school" is going to look different than past years and so will back-to-school shopping. As schools and universities adopt mixed curriculum, Cowen expects lower demand for apparel, footwear and home items. 

"Cowen analysis indicates [back to school] could be an incremental -5-10% headwind to 3Q as shoppers pull back on apparel & seek promotions." Cowen retail analyst Oliver Chen told clients. 

The coronavirus crisis has caused unprecedented financial and societal disruption from the government mandated shutdown to restrictive reopening guidelines. Resuming in-person classes for students remains a complicated decision that requires economists, public health officials, federal, state and local governments to work together to find a solution. Retailers will be vulnerable to softer sales given the uncertainty.