At the beginning of August, our children’s school finally made the announcement. They would be going remote during the fall term. We live in Oregon, and classes wouldn’t start until the middle of September. We knew our son would be okay with his laptop, but our daughter — she was going to need something for online classes. So we went online, and ordered a Chromebook that fit our budget. No big deal. But then three days later our son’s laptop suddenly crashed, and we found ourselves shopping again. Only this time, it wasn’t nearly as easy.
The Chromebook we ordered for our daughter was on back-order, along with any other laptop that was within our price range. Most Chromebooks read “out of stock,” and the few that didn’t, the delivery date was well into 2021. Naturally, with all the stress of moving everything online, we started to panic.
We called local stores in our area, and each store gave us a chuckle, like they’ve heard this question all day, and replied with “I’m sorry, we’re sold out.” They didn’t know when they would get more, and as it turns out, what we were facing was a four-alarm computer shortage.
Now, I fully acknowledge that it’s a privilege to be able to afford a computer for each of my children in the first place. But even school districts that are trying to secure computers for their lower income families and other families in need are running into issues acquiring them.
According to a recent investigation by the Associated Press, laptops of all types are in short supply.
“The world’s three biggest computer companies, Lenovo, HP and Dell, have told school districts they have a shortage of nearly 5 million laptops, in some cases exacerbated by Trump administration sanctions on Chinese suppliers, according to interviews with over two dozen U.S. schools, districts in 15 states, suppliers, computer companies and industry analysts,” the AP writes.
I think most of us can agree that it’s been a long, painful year. It feels like this has been an eternal summer of being stuck in the house with my kiddos, them asking for snacks and longing for friends; all the while, I’m working from home and struggling to stay employed. And as much as I support our school’s decision to go remote, that doesn’t make repeating the madness of spring 2020 any less stressful — and adding a laptop shortage on top of that isn’t helping.
In so many situations like this, the kids who are really suffering are the ones at the bottle of the income bracket. Tom Baumgarten, superintendent of the Morongo County School District in California’s Mojave Desert, said to the Associated Press, “[It’s] 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.”
In his school district, all 8,000 students qualify for free lunch and most need computers for distance learning. Understandably, he is stressed. Baumgarten was set to order 5,000 Lenovo Chromebooks in July when his vendor called him and said Lenovo was expecting a massive delay. So he switched to HPs and was told they would arrive in time for the first day of school on August 26. The delivery date then changed to September, then October. And Baumgarten isn’t alone. Nationwide, delivery dates for computers are becoming a moving target.
My day job is at a university, and during the summer I ran an online bridge program for incoming freshmen. We reached out to each student to see if they had the proper technology to fully participate, and what we found was that many low income students did have a computer in the home, but it was a family computer. Their father or mother might need it for work, preventing them from having access all the time, particularly when we were having live classes where the student needed to be in attendance. And when I asked these students how they participated in online high school, the story was always the same: “The school loaned me a Chromebook. If they hadn’t, I probably would have failed my final semester of high school.”
Clearly, many students will be in the same pinch this fall, living in a tug of war with other family members over available technology, setting them up for a real struggle to succeed in online classes.
With my own story, we did get lucky. Now keep in mind in my computer searching experience, not all computers were sold out; many higher-end computers that were out of our price range were still available. It was the lower- to middle-range computers that were out of stock, or had long wait times on delivery. After searching the web and local stores for two days, we finally thought of checking Fred Meyer, a place we usually went to for groceries, and didn’t even realize they had a small technology section in the front of the store. Casting a wider net and including more stores — even smaller retailers — in your search is one of the suggestions put forth by Consumer Reports, in addition to setting up in-stock email alerts, being flexible about brands and specifications, and buying refurbished.
Fortunately, Fred Meyer did have two different models of Chromebooks available. The reviews weren’t as good as the one we picked up for our daughter, and the price was more than we wanted to pay, but after searching and searching, we were just grateful to find one that would allow our son to fully participate in his online classes.
Still, I can’t help but realize that many parents will not be so lucky.
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