(Photo by Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/picture alliance via Getty Images)
(Photo by Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Families struggle to afford laptops, even in school districts that promised to buy each child a device.

School is back in session, but millions of students across the country are finding themselves left behind. The coronavirus pandemic forced many schools to teach through remote learning, but that requires students to have laptops, a costly item to add when many American families are struggling with lost jobs and reduced hours.

In addition to being expensive, laptops are also hard to find now, with a shortage at historic levels. And many school districts failed to deliver on promises to supply disadvantaged students with laptops for remote learning—further widening the education gap between wealthy and low-income students. 

In August, the nation’s three biggest computer companies, Lenovo, HP, and Dell, told school districts there was a shortage of nearly 5 million laptops, citing President Donald Trump’s sanctions on Chinese suppliers as a primary reason. The global demand for low-cost laptops (like the Chromebook) is up 41% from last year and has caused months-long shipping delays. The dire shortage resulted in school districts warring over laptops, with more affluent districts winning. 

According to the New York Times, Guilford County Schools in North Carolina paid more than $27 million for 66,000 laptops and tablets for students this summer. But due to the shortage, they won’t get their laptops until winter. 

Some school districts, like Los Angeles Unified School District, are not facing any issues. It paid $100 million for electronic devices in March, and by September, the district said they were unaffected by the laptop shortage. Staples is expected to receive 140,000 Chromebooks for schools in November and December, but 40,000 of them are reserved for California school districts. Meanwhile, districts in poorer states like Alabama and Mississippi are still waiting for their computers. Alabama schools are still waiting for more than 160,000 devices, and Mississippi districts didn’t receive their first batch of 320,000 laptops until October.

The shortage of laptops adds more frustration for families in low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and rural areas without access to high-speed internet. According to Common Sense, about 10 million students did not have a functional device for learning at home in 2018. Coupled with the transition to remote learning, millions of students across the country cannot attend classes online.

The lack of devices means that many students can’t attend remote classes or complete simple homework assignments. Some students without access to online classes are sent printed assignments, but they are still at a disadvantage without live discussions and the ability to ask questions during lessons.

Hollie Harper, a mother of a 13-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son with Autism, told COURIER transition to remote learning and laptop requirement added some financial strains to the family. “We got our daughter a laptop,” the New York mother of two said. “The school was supposed to give them laptops, but where are they?” 

As a frustrated parent, Harper feels like the poor handling of her children’s education falls on the hands of executive leadership—from misinformation and lack of preparedness from the White House to the inaction from the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos.

“I just can’t impress upon anyone who will listen enough, how much leadership has completely let us down,” Harper added. “We have remote learning, but it is the bottom of what we could be doing. It’s the bare minimum of what we’re getting. These kids aren’t forming relationships the way they’re supposed to. And so, to me, just a huge letdown that our administration is done with these children.”

Some parents are sacrificing their cell phones for Zoom lessons and or sharing iPads among four siblings to make things work. But for the most part, many students are falling behind and their grades are suffering as a result.

Social media is filled with testimonies from despondent parents struggling to purchase laptops and iPads to ensure their children have quality education. Some are reaching out to celebrities and prominent figures for help. “Travis, can I please get a MacBook for school because my current laptop broke recently, and I can’t afford a new laptop because my parents lost their jobs, and I have to zoom on my phone,” one student tweeted at rapper Travis Scott.

“I could use help. My kids are out of school, and we can’t afford a laptop,” one mother tweeted. “The school gave us one, but with two kids, that’s just not working. I can’t afford to buy supplies […] because everyone’s out of work. I’m working with what I’ve got.”

“Please, we need help. The children […] don’t have tablets or laptops, and we can’t afford it,” another parent tweeted. “We really need your help. My children [are] not on [the] path I want [for] my [two] children to learn and be apart of the online school. We appreciate it very much but need help.”