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Lower-income students are paying the price for the global laptop shortage

Students are going back to school — but they may not have everything they need to learn.

A nine-year-old girl takes an online class at a friend’s home during the first week of distance learning for Nevada’s Clark County School District.
This Las Vegas third grader has a Chromebook, but not all students are so lucky.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.
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This year’s back-to-school shopping list might have a new entry: a laptop, needed for the upcoming months (or more) of remote learning. Not only might it be the most expensive item on your list, it may also be the hardest one to find.

As students begin the new school year, some who will be attending virtually are scrambling to find the necessary equipment to do so. Shortages of laptops and tablets have caused delays that will stretch weeks — even months — into the school year. This could force children from households that can’t afford the devices to go without, widening the already sizable education gap between the rich and the poor.

Many schools have had plenty of time to plan for the fall and order supplies accordingly, and some of them did just that. The problem is there simply aren’t enough laptops and tablets to go around, especially when it comes to low-cost Chromebooks. Chromebooks are laptops that run Chrome, a simple operating system designed by Google, and can cost less than $300. They’re used by the majority of American school systems due to their comparatively low cost and Google’s push into the rapidly growing and increasingly lucrative education space, including apps like Google Classroom. School districts from Bozeman, Montana, to Austin, Texas, have reported backlogs in orders of computers needed for their students to participate in remote learning.

Similar pandemic-related supply chain issues have plagued other products, from meat to dumbbells — but the laptop shortage has been worsening. One industry analyst who spoke to Fast Company in May predicted that the situation would right itself by June, well in time for the new school year and its increased demand. Obviously, this has not happened.

One reason, according to the Associated Press, is the Trump administration’s sanctions, issued in July, on Chinese companies that are believed to use forced labor. While the ban only applies to American companies selling products to the sanctioned Chinese companies, the New York Times said it was likely that American businesses would stop doing business with those Chinese companies entirely. In letters to educators, Lenovo blamed the sanctions for its backlog of 3 million Chromebooks. HP, on the other hand, told school systems that its shortage of 1.7 million laptops is due to pandemic-related production shortages of components made in China. (HP and Lenovo did not respond to requests for comment from Recode.)

The United States is not the only country with a laptop shortage; schools around the world have also turned to remote learning and they also need affordable computers to do so. In January 2019, Google said 30 million Chromebooks were used in schools around the world. Those schools need Chromebooks for remote learning just as much as American schools do, which only increases demand.

The unpredictable nature of the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t helped matters, either. Some school systems, the AP said, assumed in-person learning would return in the fall, or didn’t know what the reopening plan would be until well into the summer so they didn’t order as many devices as they would ultimately need. Even schools that planned ahead, however, have seen their orders backlogged by up to six months.

Though the shortage has been going on since March, it doesn’t show any sign of letting up soon. Acer America president Gregg Prendergast told Axios that the demand was “historic,” and hundreds of thousands of orders were still pouring in.

Lower-income students have fewer options, as usual

While some school systems have been able to meet their students’ needs, the ones that won’t get enough devices in time for the new school year have had to figure out how to make education available to those who don’t have access to a computer (or, for that matter, an internet connection). Austin Independent School District in Texas even pushed the school year’s start date back to September 8 in order to have more time to acquire devices or come up with alternate education plans for kids who still didn’t have access to them.

Families that can afford to have purchased their own devices from retailers, though supplies there are also dwindling because of the increased need from students as well as from adults who are working from home more, and from their companies that suddenly have to provide mass quantities of work-from-home equipment. Off-the-shelf solutions may not be ideal. Prendergast told the Wall Street Journal that those computers might not be optimized for educational use like the models purchased by schools.

Some parents are sharing their own devices with their kids. That’s also not ideal, both from a cybersecurity perspective and a practical one: Laptops (and software) made for adults aren’t usually kid friendly and may not stand up to the rigors of frequent handling and usage by kids.

Meanwhile, other families are improvising solutions to mimic some of the benefits of a normal school setting. Certain parents are paying to create “pandemic pods” that will give their children in-person instruction as well as some social interaction with their fellow podlings — benefits that the children of families that can’t afford to join a pandemic pod will not receive.

Other children will have to rely on learning centers that schools have set up to provide students with access to the online learning supplies they need. While school districts have promised to follow CDC guidelines to keep those centers safe, it’s still not ideal considering that remote learning is meant to keep kids away from large groups of people or crowded spaces in the first place. And some school districts are just going analog: Austin, for instance, will have “instructional packets” available for kids who are learning remotely but have no access to the internet or devices.

Consequences of inequality will last longer than a school year

Difficulty accessing necessary school supplies due to income inequality is not new in the US, and the education gap between the rich and the poor has grown over the last several decades. That’s not just because wealthy parents can afford to send their kids to expensive private schools — it’s true for public education, too. For months, experts have warned that the pandemic and the remote learning it has forced upon students will only exacerbate that gap, partially because of a lack of remote learning supplies.

A June report from McKinsey estimated that lower-income students would lose twice as many months of learning compared to the average student assuming that all in-class instruction resumes in January 2021 — and the effects of this would likely be permanent and have lasting effects on the entire country. In an August report, the consulting firm again stressed the need for equity in schools’ pandemic plans.

“Access to devices and internet connectivity is uneven even in affluent districts in developed systems,” the report said. “Addressing that is a critical first step to ensure equity.”

If nothing else, the historic demand for Chromebooks has been good for their manufacturers. HP’s most recent earnings report, issued Thursday, said about half of the company’s revenue came from notebook computer sales — a 30 percent revenue increase for notebooks year over year. Dell’s latest earnings report, also released on Thursday, said the company saw a double-digit growth in revenue from Chromebooks.

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