Sep 7, 2020

Back-to-school season kicks off this week, but laptops are sold out

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With millions of students lacking the tech they need to learn at home, an unequal system is getting even more unequal.

On Mondays on Marketplace Tech — even holiday Mondays — we’re looking at the challenges of distance learning as the pandemic rolls on. And this week is kind of the official back-to-school kickoff. 

For families and school districts, getting ready for school has meant scrambling to find laptops for kids to use at home. And there is a major shortage of low-cost laptops, like Chromebooks. It’s a combination of the trade war with China and supply chains that have been disrupted by the pandemic. But with millions of students starting school without the tech they need to learn at home, an education system that was already unequal is getting even more so. 

I spoke with J.P. Gownder, an analyst at Forrester who covers computers. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Courtesy Forrester

J.P. Gownder: For now, it has been a case of delays, especially for educational institutions, who have been told in some cases that they were going to receive models — and we’re talking about thousands of laptops — by the beginning of the school-at-home period. And now they’re saying, well, you may not get these until later in the school year. And that’s very problematic if the school district is expecting to supply the laptops to their students because then you’re kind of stuck with what you have at home, and not all students can afford or have access to a computer.

Molly Wood: When do we think this shortage might end, if at all?

Gownder: One wonders, well, what will happen next year? Is it going to go back and return to normal levels? I think there’s going to be trouble on the horizon as the companies that produce this try to reevaluate their Chinese supply chain. Can they relocate to other places? Or will there be a new administration, for example, that makes that easier? Figuring out what they expect for demand, what the budgets look like for schools, [there are] so many variables at play. And I would just say much like with toilet paper, it took some time to sort out the supply chain. Well, this is a much more complicated supply chain.

Wood: I want to get back to this idea of future demand. Because if we really do see a scenario where education changes in the long term, then all of a sudden schools become an even bigger market for portable devices than they have been before.

Gownder: I think that’s right. I think the proliferation of these devices on an individual basis for every child is not universal. We have a lot of classrooms where students actually share devices, which makes sense. But when you have to send them home with the child, then that becomes a larger market. A lot depends on the course of the pandemic and how safety goes and how the numbers look. And, of course, I’m not an epidemiologist, so I won’t even try to figure that out. But let’s just say, if we’re persisting in a high state of pandemic, it means that there would be increased demand even into next year for new laptops because the schools simply don’t have individual devices for every student.

Wood: We sort of honed in on laptops for the purposes of this conversation. If we start to see permanent-remote become a reality, will other form factors, like all-in-one PCs or just even desktops, start to make a return?

Gownder: I think they could. Part of the issue, though, is that our houses have been filled with lots of remote people, right? So maybe parents, maybe grandparents, others. There’s simply a surplus of people in the household, and that means that a laptop has the advantage of flexibility, being able to move to a different room. I know a lot of the business meetings I have, you’ll see someone’s bed in the background because they’ve been sort of banished to a bedroom. And the other problem here is that schools aren’t going to be providing something like a desktop. They need to provide something that’s all-in-one, very portable and very easy to use.

Wood: Getting back to this idea of the inequality and that lower-income students who can’t afford a more expensive laptop, because that might be available, are being left out. What other devices, if any, are filling the void?

Gownder: Smartphones can fill part of the gap. Certainly in Asia, we find a lot going on in this space, where Chinese schoolchildren will get certain lessons over mobile. You can certainly do a Zoom meeting over a mobile phone, so you could participate in the classroom. Creation of content, however, as opposed to consumption, is going to be more challenging on a phone. There are schools that use tablets, particularly iPads. But they will then require, in some cases for older kids, an external keyboard and a stand and that sort of thing. So, the economics are not that easy. The bottom line is, I think, for children who have less income in their families, the schools need to try to equip them with everything that they need on a turnkey basis.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

We want to hear from you: Tell us about your remote-learning tech challenges or silver linings at mptech@marketplace.org.

If you read more about the laptop shortage, you’ll see that in a weird way, families and school districts are in competition with each other to order them. Salt Lake City schools are 6,000 laptops short as school begins. In Texas, school districts have asked the state’s education department for a million laptops and hot spots, too. The state says it could take up to 10 weeks for them to arrive.

Lenovo, Dell and HP — the three biggest makers of computers — said they’re short as many as 5 million devices. And to be clear about how complicated this supply chain is, some of the policies slowing things down aren’t just about trade. They’re about human rights. The Associated Press reports that Lenovo in particular has had trouble shipping laptops to the U.S. because of a U.S. ban on components made by Chinese companies that may be implicated in human rights abuses or forced labor of Muslim Uighurs.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer