Many metro Atlanta schools still in laptop limbo

Edmonds Elementary School third grader Jade Ortiz-Hernandez receives her new laptop for virtual learning during distribution in Forest Park, Georiga, on Oct. 14, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

After two months of waiting, some school systems in metro Atlanta are finally distributing the laptops to students that they ordered months ago.

But other districts are still waiting on their orders.

The culprit: international demand for the inexpensive computers school systems want has outstripped supply. That’s because of the switch to remote learning prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite putting orders for thousands of new Chromebooks, iPads and other computer devices as early as last May, area school leaders say they are either slowly rolling out the supply they’ve recently received or are waiting for orders that won’t come in until the holidays.

“To date, we are experiencing extended wait times due to manufacturing backlogs as a result of increased global demand for the devices,” Frank Elmore, chief information officer for Gwinnett County Public Schools – the state’s largest school system – told county school board members at a meeting Thursday.

“We are not the only ones looking for Chromebooks.” he said.

Kendell Higgs (center), technician for Clayton County Public Schools Extended Learning Beyond the Classroom, hands a student a laptop during distribution at Edmonds Elementary School in Forest Park on Oct. 14, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

As the new academic year began, the delay left thousands of students across metro Atlanta either using their own devices — including cellphones and game consoles — or employing old district-issued computers that have been patched up to fill the gaps.

It’s also worried parents, already frustrated by figuring out how to turn their homes into schools, about whether their children could fall behind because of technology shortcomings.

“Getting this makes things a lot better,” said Willette Yawn, who recently picked up a new district-issued laptop at Clayton County’s Edmonds Elementary School, at which her son is a fourth-grader. “My son’s computer that we started the school year with went out. Then we got an old computer from the school, but it went out too.”

Tu Tran, a third-grader at Edmonds, who came with her father to pick up a computer, said she was using a family computer, but found the programs on her device was incompatible with those of the school system.

“When our teacher told us to go into something, it didn’t work,” she said.

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Edmonds Elementary School parent Maria Salas waits in line to receive a new computer for her second grader during distribution in Forest Park on Oct. 14, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Most of the almost 15,000 new devices Fulton County Schools ordered in May and July have been received and are “being prepared for delivery to student device distribution locations,” said Shumuriel Ratliff, a spokeswoman for the district. The school system has distributed devices it has had on hand to students from grades 2 through 12 and the district has set up “device hubs” for students who need to swap problem laptops.

Other districts, such as Atlanta Public Schools, say they, too, are waiting on new devices to come in while relying on computers they already have in stock for the time being. Atlanta, which is renting its newer computers, has an order of 4,600 iPads expected to arrive in November and 34,000 Chromebooks estimated to come in around mid-December.

“Since July, APS has distributed over 34,000 iPads, laptops and Chromebooks for current students to use for virtual learning,” APS spokesman Seth Coleman said in an email. “Combined with the 10,000 devices distributed in March, this is close to 90 percent for the APS student enrollment.”

A spokeswoman for DeKalb County Schools said the district has distributed more than 5,300 computers to students from devices it received in September. The spokeswoman did not know how many more are needed and in what condition those laptops students are using are in.

School leaders said the issue is not hardware, but software. The newer devices come with programs that unify lessons and coursework that are not available to students who may be using their own computers or a game console.

Willette Yawn picks up a laptop for her child at laptop distribution at Edmonds Elementary School in Forest Park on Oct. 14, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Gwinnett received a little more than 3,500 Chromebooks on Thursday and delivered almost 3,000 of them to 25 schools shortly afterward, Elmore said. The district has spent around $13.2 million to date on technology for remote learning because of the pandemic.

Chromebooks cost about $180 each, plus a $25 licensing fee the district pays to Google, the maker of the computers, Elmore said. They are in short supply, in part, because they are cheaper than other brands and are the most cost effective to districts, which expect to lose thousands of laptops that are either broken or never returned.

“By and large, they are considered a disposable device,” he said. “That said, you can repair them typically by cannibalizing other devices that come in that aren’t functioning well.”

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