Aug 23, 2020 - Economy & Business

Supply chain disruptions, sanctions threaten school shortage of 5 million laptops

An Acer box.
A Boston Public Schools employee holds two laptops as he does a dry run going door to door handing out Acer Chromebooks to students in Boston in March. Photo: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The three biggest computer companies in the world — Lenovo, HP and Dell — have told U.S. school districts they have a shortage of nearly 5 million laptops due to supply chain disruptions and sanctions on China, according to an AP investigation.

Why it matters: With many districts choosing fully remote or hybrid learning models, many fear the shortfall and delays of up to several months in receiving orders of the computers could exacerbate inequities in the classroom.

Between the lines: In some cases, the problem has been made worse by the Trump administration's sanctions on Chinese suppliers, which have affected the manufacturer of several models of Lenovo laptops.

  • In a letter to customers, the company said the ban will add several weeks to the delays, AP reports. The company has a backlog of more than 3 million Chromebooks.
  • The sanctions affect companies implicated in forced labor and human rights abuses against the Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang, which has been the target of demographic genocide carried out by the Chinese government.

The big picture: Some of the nation's largest school districts are still waiting on orders of laptops or hotspots, including Los Angeles; Clark County, Nevada; Wake County, North Carolina; Houston; Palm Beach, Florida; and Hawaii.

  • The Denver school district, the largest in Colorado, is waiting on some 12,500 Lenovo Chromebooks it ordered in April and May. It will be about 3,000 devices short when school starts Wednesday.

What they're saying:

  • Matt Bartenhagen, IT director for Williston Public Schools in North Dakota, told AP: “It’s a tough one because I’m not condoning child slave labor for computers, but can we not hurt more children in the process? They were supposed to be delivered in July. Then August. Then late August. The current shipping estimate is 'hopefully' by the end of the year."
  • Tom Baumgarten, superintendent of the Morongo Unified School District in California, said, "This is going to be like asking an artist to paint a picture without paint. You can’t have a kid do distance learning without a computer."
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