Schoolchildren are stalled by a growing laptop shortage

By | October 17, 2020

By Kellen Browning

When Guilford County Schools in North Carolina spent more than $27 million to buy 66,000 computers and tablets for students over the summer, the district ran into a problem: There was a shortage of cheap laptops, and the devices wouldn’t arrive until late October or November.

More than 4,000 students in the district had to start the school year without the computers they needed for remote learning.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Angie Henry, the district’s chief operations officer. “Kids are excited about school. They want to learn.”

Millions of children are encountering all sorts of inconveniences that come with digital instruction during the coronavirus pandemic. But many students are facing a more basic challenge: They don’t have computers and can’t attend classes held online.

A surge in worldwide demand by educators for low-cost laptops and Chromebooks — up to 41% higher than last year — has created monthslong shipment delays and pitted desperate schools against one another. Districts with deep pockets often win out, leaving poorer ones to give out printed assignments and wait until winter for new computers to arrive.

That has frustrated students around the country, especially in rural areas and communities of color, which also often lack high-speed internet access and are most likely to be on the losing end of the digital divide. In 2018, 10 million students didn’t have an adequate device at home, a study found. That gap, with much of the country still learning remotely, could now be crippling.

“The learning loss that’s taken place since March when they left, when schools closed, it’ll take years to catch up,” Henry said. “This could impact an entire generation of our students.”

Sellers are facing stunning demand from schools in countries from Germany to El Salvador, said Michael Boreham, an education technology analyst at Futuresource Consulting, a British company. Japan alone is expected to order 7 million devices.

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Global computer shipments to schools were up 24% from 2019 in the second quarter, Boreham said, and were projected to hit that 41% jump in the third quarter, which just ended.

Chromebooks, web-based devices that run on software from Google and are made by an array of companies, are in particular demand because they cost less than regular laptops. That has put huge pressure on a supply chain that cobbles laptop parts from all over the world, usually assembling them in Asian factories, Boreham said.

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