As school districts spin up with various remote distance and in-classroom learning plans to combat COVID-19, they’ve needed far more computers than typical for the back-to-school season. This is causing problems because — again, thanks to COVID-19 — the number of computers currently available for purchase is much lower than normal.
A number of factors are feeding the issue. Slower port inspections mean longer stock cycles. The United States Postal Service has suffered unprecedented slowdowns. Chinese factory production is pushing back up to pre-pandemic levels, but there are supply chain weaknesses that haven’t been fully addressed. The ongoing US-China trade war isn’t helping anything move faster, either. All told, Dell, HP, and Lenovo are claiming they have a collective shortage of 5 million laptops.
That’s a hard place for kids and teachers to be in. A limited supply will drive up prices, exacerbating the digital divide at the worst possible time. Tom Baumgarten, superintendent of the Morongo Unified School District, had ordered 5,000 Lenovo Chromebooks when he was told they were banned due to the inclusion of a specific component. He switched his order to HP and was told to expect the machines by Aug 26. As of now, they’ll arrive in October. As manufacturers come back online in China, they’ve been prioritizing corporate and government orders above school production.
The Commerce Department has imposed restrictions on who US companies can do business with based on human rights violations in China. The various Chinese companies added to the list are accused of being “complicit in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR).”
The fallout from this policy change is going to exacerbate an already tenuous situation for many children this year. Schools and the communities they serve have options, including fundraisers, recycling/repair parties that update and improve old hardware so it can serve this kind of task, and, of course, eBay. The competition for these resources, however, is going to be fierce.
What would be great is to see one of the major OEMs or chip manufacturers get involved with this directly. Dell, HP, and Lenovo all accept recycled PCs. Funnel the useful PCs into the educational market, specifically, and sell them at good prices. It wouldn’t be enough to eliminate the problem, but it might help close the gap.
I thought about starting this paragraph by saying “If you’ve got some spare hardware,” but let’s be honest with each other. You read ExtremeTech. Your “spare hardware” might be a five-year-old video card or a 2GB stick of DDR3, but you’ve probably got something somewhere. In some cases, even desktops with a USB camera would be preferable to nothing at all. In my experience, school districts will often gladly accept needed tech donations, even if they haven’t put out a specific call to the community. If you choose to go this route, be straightforward, get the principal or IT guy on the phone, and ask what kind of equipment they need.
True, we’re not going to solve this shortage by digging lost hardware out of the couch cushions (I’m not talking about this). If companies and communities work together to recycle some of the hardware collectively stuck in storage closets, basements, and attics across the country, we might be able to make a dent.