Laptop shortages are widening the digital divide in the United States

Until recently, Samantha Moore’s 13-year-old son, Raymond Heller, shared an iPad with three brothers in North Carolina.

When schools in Guilford County, North Carolina spent more than $27 million to purchase 66,000 student computers and tablets over the summer, the district faced a problem: there was a shortage of cheap laptops and the devices would not arrive until the end of October or November. More than 4,000 students in the district had to start the school year – which in the United States begins in September – without the computers they needed for distance learning.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Angie Henry, the district’s chief operating officer. “The children are delighted with the school. They want to learn. “Millions of children are facing all sorts of inconveniences related to distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic. But many students are facing a more fundamental challenge: they don’t have a computer and can’t not attend online courses.

A surge in global demand from educators for low-cost laptops and Chromebooks — up 41% from last year — has led to delivery delays of months and pitted desperate schools against each other. Districts with the most financial resources often win, leaving poorer ones to distribute papers and wait for winter for new computers to arrive.

This has frustrated students across the country, especially in rural areas and communities of color, who also often lack high-speed internet access and are more likely to be at the bottom of the digital divide. In 2018, 10 million students did not have a suitable device at home, according to a study by Common Sense Media. That gap, with much of the country still studying remotely, can now be devastating.

“The learning loss that has been going on since March, when they went home, when the schools closed, will take years to catch up,” Angie said. “It could impact a whole generation of our students.”

Demand for all types of computers puts low-end devices on the back burner

Suppliers are facing overwhelming demand from schools in countries ranging from Germany to El Salvador, said Michael Boreham, education technology analyst at Futuresource Consulting, a UK firm. Japan alone is expected to order 7 million devices. Global school computer shipments rose 24% from 2019 in the second quarter, Boreham said, and are expected to reach that 41% jump in the third quarter, which just ended.

Chromebooks, devices designed for internet access that run on an operating system developed by Google and manufactured by a number of companies, are in particular demand because they cost less than regular laptops. This has put enormous pressure on a supply chain that repairs laptop parts from around the world, often assembling them in Asian factories, Boreham said.

In 2018, 10 million students did not have an adapted device at home.

While this supply chain has been slowly accelerating, the peak in demand is “far beyond what has happened historically,” said Stephen Baker, consumer electronics analyst at NPD Group. “The fact that we’ve been able to do this and there’s even more demand there, that’s something you can’t plan for.”

Compounding the problem, many manufacturers are prioritizing the production of expensive electronics that generate higher profits, such as gaming hardware and high-end computers for people who work from home, said Erez Pikar. , CEO of Trox, a company that sells devices to consumers. .school districts.

Before the start of the year, Trox predicted it would ship 500,000 devices to school districts in the United States and Canada in 2020, Pikar said. Now the total will be 2 million. But North American schools are still expected to end the year with a shortage of more than 5 million devices, he said. Pikar added that he was unaware of any large-scale effort to refurbish or donate laptops to school districts.

Schools in poorer areas find it harder to receive materials

Districts that placed orders early in the pandemic have come out on top, industry analysts say, while schools that waited until the summer — often because they were struggling to survive — are at a disadvantage.

The Los Angeles Unified School District spent $100 million on computers in March and said in September it was unaffected by the shortage. But Paterson Public Schools in New Jersey had to wait until it received federal coronavirus aid in late May to order 14,000 Chromebooks, the delivery of which was later delayed due to Commerce Department restrictions on a Chinese manufacturer, to Hefei Bitland.

Schools in Alabama are expecting more than 160,000 devices, and Mississippi did not receive the first of 320,000 state-ordered computers until early October. Staples said it will receive 140,000 Chromebooks for schools in November and December, 40,000 of which are destined for California districts.

About 10 of Daniel Santos’ 120 students in Houston told him they needed a laptop

Daniel Santos, an eighth-grade teacher in Houston, enters his virtual classroom at home each morning and begins the day’s American history lesson. After freeing up his students to work on homework, the difficult conversations begin. If students stop regularly handing in their homework, Santos asks them privately, “Do you have access to a laptop? One boy said he and his brother shared a computer at home, which made it difficult to access lessons. Others performed tasks on their cell phones.

“It breaks my heart,” said Santos, who hears the “sadness” in the students’ voices. “They want to do their chores.”

An issue is leading many districts to push for the resumption of face-to-face classes

Schools in Guilford County, with 73,000 students, face the same problem in North Carolina. The district ordered laptops in August with help from the coronavirus relief bill in March, Angie said.

Many children in the area live in poverty and do not have personal computers or reliable internet service, she said. Those unable to attend virtual classes receive printed assignments delivered to their homes. Some watch lecture recordings when they can use a device, and a small number have been allowed into district buildings for occasional access to computers and Wi-Fi, Angie said.

The district is pushing to resume some face-to-face classes in late October due to the growing gap between rich and poor.

Three of Samantha’s children in her backyard in Greensboro, North Carolina “I can’t just go out and buy four computers,” she said

In eastern Idaho, the Bonneville School District is offering in-person classes, but hundreds of students have had to quarantine after possible exposure to the virus — and the district said it has no not enough Chromebooks for everyone. The district didn’t place its $700,000 order for 4,000 devices until late September due to budget challenges, said Gordon Howard, Bonneville’s chief technology officer.

While waiting for the decree, students without computers find themselves without access to education. “Those who fall behind keep falling behind, and it’s not the kids’ fault at all,” said Scott Miller, principal of Hillcrest High School in Ammon’s Bonneville District.

Many students at the New Mexico Native-run Sante Fe Indian School live in tribal homes without Wi-Fi access, said Kimball Sekaquaptewa, the school’s director of technology. The school has ordered laptops with built-in SIM cards that do not require Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet.

But the July application submission date has been pushed back to October, forcing students to start the school year without distance learning. Instead, they were asked to find a public Wi-Fi network twice a week to upload and download tasks. “There’s a lot of frustration,” Kimball said. “We really wanted to start classes with enthusiasm, but now we are in limbo.” / TRANSLATION OF ROMINA CACIA

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