Atlanta-area schools scramble for laptops despite return to classrooms

The crunch is not universal, but it’s a challenge for many districts

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Laptops will be just as critical to schools when classes begin in August as they were during the pandemic — and just as hard to find, metro Atlanta district leaders say.

A year after school systems across the area scrambled to find enough laptops for students to take home for virtual classes, they are facing similar shortages for the 2021-2022 academic year, even though most students will be back in classrooms.

The problem: A worldwide dearth of microprocessors is squeezing the computer, auto and electronics industry, sending prices soaring and school systems forming plans on how to address delivery delays. Glass, another key component for the laptops, also is in short supply.

“You couple that with a large worldwide demand for these devices, the pipeline’s pretty tight right now,” Gwinnett Schools Chief Information Officer Frankie Elmore said recently during a school board meeting where he laid out the district’s initiative to get a laptop into the hands of every student.

And it could get worse before it gets better, said David Barton, a managing director of accounting firm UHY Advisors, who specializes in technology risk and compliance. Trade uncertainty with China, one of the biggest producers of chips, continues to threaten supplies. Likewise, ongoing effects from the pandemic — such as tankers unable to offload shipments — could extend the problem for some time to come.

“You can’t anticipate all of the ramifications of what has gone on in the past 12 months,” he said.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The challenge comes as most students will be back in school for face-to-face instruction, which ordinarily would relax the need for devices. But districts found they liked the use of computers in instruction and want to continue using them as a learning tool.

“We’ve gotten a lot better at using technology to enhance student learning experiences,” said Anthony Smith, assistant superintendent for Gwinnett County high schools. A recent report from a Gwinnett Schools committee charged with researching learning models after COVID-19 found that technology enhanced the student learning experience.

How quickly districts are moving to blunt their laptop supply shortage, however, depends on what they know about their inventory.

Fulton County Schools, for instance, approved spending $9.9 million earlier this month to provide devices for every third- through 12th grader as well as purchase carts stocked with devices for prekindergarten through second grade classes, leaders said.

Prior to the pandemic, Fulton students in grades six through 12 had individual laptops. When COVID-19 forced a switch to remote learning, the 90,000-student district distributed additional devices to students in second through fifth grades in the spring and fall of 2020.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Gwinnett Schools is aiming to buy enough Chromebooks for all 180,000 of the district’s students to use their own simultaneously, at a cost of nearly $21 million. The district hopes to use federal COVID-19 relief funds for the new technology, including last month’s $14 million order of 40,000 touch screen devices earmarked for every student from kindergarten to second grade.

Clayton, on the other hand, is evaluating whether it may have to purchase between 10,000 and 15,000 new computers to replace older devices used by kindergartners through second-grade students.

DeKalb County Schools leaders said the district plans a “refresh project” of its computers this year. In 2017, the district rolled out a program to get a device into the hands of every two students in elementary schools and one device for every middle and high student.

“The devices that were part of our initial deployment have been well used for the past four years and need to be replaced,” a district spokeswoman said.

Cobb leaders said the school system distributed devices to more than 45,000 students received last school year and that future computer outlays will depend on the supply chain availability and costs.

“As students continue to learn in both face-to-face and virtual classrooms, we remain committed to providing the tools students need to be successful, including computers,” the school system said in a statement.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

The crunch is not universal. Henry County residents approved a $325 million SPLOST earlier this year in part to supply new laptops to the district’s 43,000 students.

Others made long-term plans in 2020. Atlanta Public Schools agreed to spend $25 million to lease 40,000 laptops for five years. That will allow the district to get a laptop in the hands of all students this coming academic year, a schools spokesman said.

Districts also said they also are keeping how quickly those tools may arrive as part of the rollout plans.

During the summer and fall of 2020, low supply issues led to waits of more than 120 days to fulfill orders, according to Emily Bell, Fulton’s chief information officer. The industry has recovered somewhat, with lead times now running around 60 days.

And they are seeking devices from multiple manufacturers, not just one or two as they have in the past.

“We need to ensure we’re purchasing the right devices for our students and our money, and we must be able to ensure that we properly support and maintain the devices for their expected lifespan,” Gwinnett’s Elmore said.

Staff writer Vanessa McCray contributed to this report.