When Guilford County Schools in North Carolina spent more than $ 27 million in the summer to buy 66,000 student computers and tablets, the district ran into a problem: there was a shortage of cheap laptops and devices were only coming to an end October or November.
More than 4,000 students in the district had to start the school year without the computers they needed for distance learning.
"It's heartbreaking," said Angie Henry, the district's chief operations officer. “Children are happy about school. You want to learn. "
Millions of children are facing all sorts of inconveniences associated with digital education during the coronavirus pandemic. However, many students face a more fundamental challenge: they do not have a computer and they cannot take online courses.
The increasing global demand from educators for inexpensive laptops and Chromebooks – up to 41 percent higher than last year – has led to months of shipping delays and pitted desperate schools against each other. Districts with deep pockets often win, leaving poorer ones placing print jobs and waiting until winter for new computers to arrive.
This has frustrated students across the country, especially in rural areas and color communities, which often lack high-speed internet access and are most likely to be at the end of the digital divide. In 2018, 10 million students did not have an adequate device at home, a study by the nonprofit Common Sense Media found. That void, where much of the country is still learning from afar, could now seem crippling.
"The loss of learning that has occurred since March when they closed schools will take years to make up," Ms. Henry said. "This could affect a whole generation of our students."
Sellers are facing staggering demand from schools in countries from Germany to El Salvador, said Michael Boreham, an educational technology analyst at UK firm Futuresource Consulting. In Japan alone, seven million devices are expected to be ordered.
Global computer shipments to schools rose 24 percent in the second quarter from 2019, Boreham said, and they were forecast to hit that 41 percent jump in the third quarter, which was just ending.
Chromebooks, web-based devices that run on software from Google and are made by a number of companies, are in particular demand because they cost less than regular laptops. This has put tremendous pressure on a supply chain where laptop parts from around the world are paved and usually assembled in Asian factories, Boreham said.
While that supply chain has been slowly accelerating, the surge in demand is "so far beyond what has historically been," said Stephen Baker, consumer electronics analyst for NPD Group. "The fact that we did it and there is more demand out there is something that cannot be planned."
In addition, many manufacturers give priority to producing expensive electronics that make higher profits, such as gaming hardware and high-end computers for home workers, said Erez Pikar, general manager of Trox, a company that sells devices to school districts.
Before the year started, Trox predicted it would ship 500,000 devices to school districts in the US and Canada in 2020, Pikar said. Now it will be two million. But North American schools will likely still end the year with a shortage of more than five million devices, he said. He added that he was not aware of any major efforts to renovate or donate laptops to school districts.
Districts that placed orders at the beginning of the pandemic have prevailed, according to industry analysts, while schools that waited until summer – often because they struggled to make ends meet – are at a disadvantage.
For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District spent $ 100 million on computers in March and said in September that it was unaffected by shortages. However, New Jersey's Paterson Public Schools had to wait to receive money for federal coronavirus aid to order 14,000 Chromebooks in late May, which was then delayed due to Department of Commerce restrictions on a Chinese manufacturer, Hefei Bitland.
In July, the Ministry of Commerce added Hefei Bitland, which worked with computer giant Lenovo, to a list of companies alleged to have used Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China for forced labor. This made the laptop shortage worse just a month or two before the schools reopened.
"It took a bad situation and made it worse," said Mr Pikar. "It was pretty dramatic – there were hundreds and hundreds of school districts that got caught."
A Commerce Department spokesman said Lenovo should have known that "they supply American school children with computers that could be made from forced labor." Lenovo did not respond to requests for comment.
Paterson was only able to secure more laptops nine days before school started, but other districts weren't as lucky.
Schools in Alabama are waiting for more than 160,000 machines, and Mississippi didn't receive the first of the 320,000 computers the state ordered until early October. Staples announced that it would receive 140,000 school Chromebooks in November and December, of which 40,000 will be for California districts.
Daniel Santos, an eighth-grade teacher in Houston, logs into his virtual classroom every morning from home and begins the American history class of the day. As soon as he lets go of his students to work on assignments, the tough conversations begin.
When the students stop doing their homework regularly, Mr 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 for both of them to attend classes. Others were doing tasks on their phones.
"It breaks my heart," said Mr Santos, hearing the "demoralization" in the students' voices. "They want to do their job."
Almost all of the school's nearly 700 students, Navarro Middle School, are of Spanish or Black descent and most are eligible for a free lunch. Mr Santos said Navarro had been underfunded for years. There isn't even a working library, he said.
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The district said it has spent $ 51 million and received more than 100,000 devices since April. But a month into the school year, teachers in Houston are still seeing kids without laptops.
Mr Santos' students are intelligent, curious and not used to fighting in school, he said. Since class started in early September, around 10 of his 120 students have told him that they need a laptop. For the first time some are falling behind, he said.
The 73,000-student Guilford County Schools in North Carolina have the same problem. The district ordered laptops in August under the March Coronavirus Relief Act, Ms. Henry said.
Many children in the region live in poverty and do not have a PC or reliable internet service, she said. Those unable to take virtual classes can get printed jobs delivered to their homes. Some are looking at class records when they can log into a device, and a small number have been allowed into county buildings for occasional computer and WiFi access, Ms. Henry said.
The district is pushing for face-to-face teaching again in late October as the gap between rich and poor widen.
For about a month, Samantha Moore's four school-age children shared an iPad from Guilford County and took turns going to class. Her grades have suffered, she said.
"Not everyone is financially stable enough to buy laptops, and some families are as big as mine," said Ms. Moore, a sports bar manager. "I can't just buy four computers." She said she received grocery stamps and lost a $ 6,000 work bonus because the pandemic temporarily closed the bar.
Eric Cole, who teaches Ms. Moore's 13-year-old son Raymond Heller, eventually secured more pills for families and other students through his church.
It was "a little frustrating" not being able to attend class, Raymond said. Now that he has his own device, "the work is easy – the live classes make everything easier."
In eastern Idaho, the Bonneville Joint School District runs face-to-face classes, but hundreds of students have had to be quarantined after possible virus exposure – and the district said it doesn't have enough Chromebooks to hold everyone. Gordon Howard, Bonneville's technology director, said the $ 700,000 order for 4,000 units wasn't placed until late September due to budget issues.
While waiting for the order, students without computers miss the training.
"Those who lag keep coming back, and it's not the children to blame," said Scott Miller, director of Hillcrest High School for the Bonneville District in Ammon.
Many students at Sante Fe Indian School, run by the Pueblo tribes in New Mexico, live in tribal homes with no WiFi access, said Kimball Sekaquaptewa, the school's technology director. The school ordered laptops with built-in SIM cards that do not require WiFi to connect to the Internet.
However, the delivery date for the July order was postponed to October, forcing students to start the school year without distance learning. Instead, they were asked to find public WiFi twice a week to download and upload tasks.
"There is a lot of frustration," said Ms. Sekaquaptewa. "We really wanted to get started and now we're in limbo."