In March, as the country transitioned to online learning almost overnight because of the pandemic, many schools and families did their best to make do with the tools they had.
The situation revealed deep disparities in access to at-home technology, and many school districts hoped to rectify the situation when they began hybrid or online schooling come fall.
“When we found out we would be doing remote learning in full, it meant we had to get devices distributed out to students in need,” Lara Hussain, manager of academic technology for Denver Public Schools, told CNN Business. “Timing was critical … No one wants to start where students have no access to devices or the internet.”
But with districts across the country all placing big device orders around the same time — and with many universities and companies also reliant on remote work — the unprecedented demand for laptops has strained supply chains. As a result, schools and families are dealing with shipping delays, limited selections and higher-than-usual technology costs.
Many device makers say they’re working to scale production to meet the need, but there’s only so much they can do.
“The supply chain is not built to satisfy this kind of demand,” NPD analyst Stephen Baker said, adding: “I would be surprised if anything is fully caught up before the end of the [calendar] year.”
‘Not even a fraction of what we needed’
Denver Public Schools began the process of ordering devices in April for the fall, and by mid-July had completed orders for more than 12,500 Lenovo 300E touchscreen laptops, Hussain said. The district had previously used that device and believed it had the features and durability needed for remote learning.
But several weeks later, the district’s third-party supplier said the order was stuck in US Customs, and encouraged DPS to look into alternatives.
“We worked on a myriad of fronts to look at other solutions,” Hussain said. “We started calling big box stores, Amazon, to see what was the max amount that we could order over any number of days. What we saw very quickly was that there was no inventory, not even a fraction of what we needed.”
Best Buy (BBY) CEO Corie Barry said on an earnings call last week that “stronger-than-anticipated demand” as the company reopened stores “resulted in more constrained product availability.” Amazon (AMZN) declined to comment, but its website also shows limited stock for some devices.
So the Denver school district dug through school storage units and refurbished old laptops, and asked families that borrowed devices in the spring to return them if they had other options. It also bought other laptops for nearly $100,000 more than what it had originally planned to pay.
The issue has implications beyond the added stress and money. Hussain said that having students on different kinds of laptops complicates repair processes and forces teachers to troubleshoot across multiple operating systems.
“From an academic standpoint, we want our teachers to be familiar with the tools that students will be working on,” Hussain said. “If we’re all familiar with a common device, that results in better outcomes for our students and reduces lost instruction time.”
Other school districts have also run into the issue, with varying degrees of severity.
A spokesperson for Los Angeles Unified School District told CNN Business last week that devices are currently available for all of its students, but outstanding orders for replacement Chromebooks and iPads have been delayed.
And in Waterford, Michigan, Vicki Shellnut said her kids’ school district has also experienced delays in receiving its laptop order. She’s been juggling her three childrens’ schedules on a single district-issued device.
While her 14-year-old son has two hours of online class daily, Shellnut’s 10- and 9-year-old spend just a half hour checking in with their teachers and use paper packets sent by the school for most of their work — which Shellnut then has to grade.
Balancing all that with online homework programs and telehealth doctors’ appointments has made for a tricky scheduling task. But buying another device isn’t an option for Shellnut’s family after her husband, who works in sales, was temporarily out of work because of the pandemic.
“I have kids with different sign-ins and programs and I have to try to to make sure that they get their time in every day,” Shellnut said. “It’s going to be challenging with all the scheduling trying to make sure everything is done.”
‘Sales spikes that we haven’t ever seen’
The issue is not that device makers are producing fewer laptops. Many device makers are actually enjoying elevated sales. Since the first week of April, PC retail sales have jumped 44% compared to the same period in the prior year, according to NPD’s Baker.
This year, though, demand this year has been so great that tech companies have been left scrambling to meet the need.
“Acer and the entire industry are facing historic demand for computers and monitors,” a spokesperson for device maker Acer said in a statement to CNN Business. “Component supply is fairly tight; however, Acer and our supplies are working diligently to put products in the hands of customers as quickly as possible.”
Similarly, an HP (HPQ) spokesperson said: “We are working hard to help schools get computers in the hands of students as quickly as possible.”
The rapid increase in demand compounded existing pressure on many tech companies’ supply chains. Even before the coronavirus hit, device makers were already grappling with tariffs and other Trump administration restrictions on trade with China. And in the early days of the pandemic, many producers in China temporarily shut down factories or scaled back operations.
“When [laptop] sales started increasing in March, no one started out in a good place,” NPD analyst Stephen Baker said.
Still, he added, if things had normalized after several weeks, tech suppliers would likely have caught up. “But the fact that it’s gone on for five months means that it’s a challenge,” he said.
In a recent earnings call, Dell (DELL) Chief Operating Officer Jeff Clarke pointed out that it can take a while to get crucial laptop components, such as silicon and liquid crystal display screens.
“The lead times in our products service are getting better by the day,” Clarke said. “But that’s the challenge in front of us … It’s this unanticipated spike in demand in this particular sub-segment that has driven industry shortages, which I’m sure you heard from everybody, we’re responding to.”
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