Metro Atlanta schools facing laptop shortage and outraged parents

Mundy's Mill High School senior Rashad Bivens picks up a laptop during distribution at the school in  Jonesboro, Georgia on Sept. 1, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Mundy's Mill High School senior Rashad Bivens picks up a laptop during distribution at the school in Jonesboro, Georgia on Sept. 1, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

When Mundy’s Mills High School started online classes last month, Rashad Bivens struggled because he hadn’t yet been issued a laptop. He tried using his personal computer for coursework, but it often failed to connect to his classes or download assignments.

“I can’t do any work so I am not passing some of my classes,” the 17-year-old senior said Tuesday as the 55,000-student Clayton County School District begin distributing 41,000 laptops ordered in May. Bivens, one of the recipients, said his teachers promised to give him time to catch up on his schoolwork.

A nationwide laptop shortage created largely by the shift to online classes is challenging districts across the metro Atlanta area. They’re waiting on thousand of orders, from less expensive Chromebooks to more robust computers that can handle the volume and heavy use involved with online learning.

Chris Ragsdale, superintendent of the nearly 112,000-student Cobb County school system said during a recent Facebook Live meeting that his district has given out more than 30,000 devices so far this academic year, but is still unable to meet demand. Thousands of more laptops are on order.

“But … every other school in the country has also tried ordering the same devices,” he said. “So there is going to be a delay.”

Some area school districts say they have distributed most of the laptops they have on hand, including some aging devices patched together with newer software.

Mundy's Mill High School assistant principal Sharon Wilson hands a student a paperwork for a laptop during a laptop distribution at the school in Jonesboro, Georgia, on Sept. 1, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Mundy's Mill High School assistant principal Sharon Wilson hands a student a paperwork for a laptop during a laptop distribution at the school in Jonesboro, Georgia, on Sept. 1, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Craig Hill, a professor in the College of Business at Clayton State University, likened the situation of technology companies today to producers of toilet paper and hand sanitizer at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Demand for their products grew so quickly that it overwhelmed their ability to match the desired supply.

“The supply chain takes some time to react,” he said. “Laptop demand is usually as stable as you can get, like toilet paper and refrigerators.”

Jennifer Darling-Aduana, an assistant professor in learning technologies at Georgia State University, said the lack of laptops will have an even greater impact on lower-income communities, who already are working from a deficit.

“We know that students who are less likely to have devices or internet access are from lower-income, minority backgrounds that can have some profound equity implications,” she said.

School districts say it’s often unclear when the laptops will arrive. Across the nation, shipments expected in August and September are increasingly being pushed back to October and November.

Three of the biggest computer manufacturers — HP, Lenovo and Dell — have said they are short 5 million laptops, according to the Associated Press.

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Many parents are frustrated with the hold up.

Tabitha Isom said she and her two children — a senior in the Gwinnett County School District and a 7th grader at a private academy — are sharing two personal computers. Because Isom works from home, when she needs a device, one of her children uses a cellphone to connect to classes.

“That’s been the headache for me and my family,” she said. “Even if you go to the store and try to buy a laptop, they tell you they’re all out. … It has been a roller coaster.”

She added: “All of this should have been thought out before school started.”

Mundy's Mill High School assistant principal Sequena Scott goes through paperwork for a parent who is looking to borrow a laptop for her child during a laptop distribution at the school in Jonesboro, Georgia on Sept. 1, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Mundy's Mill High School assistant principal Sequena Scott goes through paperwork for a parent who is looking to borrow a laptop for her child during a laptop distribution at the school in Jonesboro, Georgia on Sept. 1, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Gwinnett County Schools, the largest district in the state at about 180,000 students, said it has distributed as many as 50,000 Chromebooks this year, including around 5,000 older laptops that have been updated with Chromebook hardware and software. Another 19,000 Chromebooks were recently ordered after the district’s school board approved the expenditure in August.

Diane Minor, a Gwinnett resident with a son in the eighth grade, said even if you have a laptop issued by the school system, it may perform poorly.

“The one my son has is slow and the software wasn’t updated,” she said. “It’s ridiculous.”

DeKalb County School is hoping to pick up about 27,000 computers next week. The city of Atlanta Schools is acquiring 40,000 laptops it will lease for nearly $25 million over the next five years.

Meanwhile, Fulton County Schools distributed nearly 60,000 devices to students in grades 3 through 12 over the summer, but still has about 6,000 devices they need to give out, district spokesman Brian Noyes said. Fulton had planned to get laptops for students to second graders after Labor Day, but “that has been slightly delayed due to the market demands,” he said.

Gwinnett, like other districts, is using its school foundation and support from philanthropic organizations to raise money to meet its technology needs. But several people pushed back on appeals for donations, saying the lack of enough laptops was plainly poor planning.

Mundy's Mill High School sophomore Keyla Bustos receives her computer during a laptop distribution at the school in Jonesboro, Georgia on Sept. 1, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
Mundy's Mill High School sophomore Keyla Bustos receives her computer during a laptop distribution at the school in Jonesboro, Georgia on Sept. 1, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

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

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

Not all counties are struggling. Henry County Schools and Marietta City Schools said they had enough laptops to cover their student bodies, though both systems were still trying to get enough Wi-Fi hot spots for students without internet to use.

Henry, for instance, used $36 million from a 2017 E-SPLOST to buy laptops and iPads for students in the third through 12th grades.

Kristen Kline, who has an 11th grader and a 7th grader in Clayton County schools, said she was happy to pick up two Chromebooks because only one child had initially been supplied a device. The other child was using the family’s home computer for school.

“I’m excited because this frees up my desktop,” she said.

Staff writers Ben Brasch, Amanda Coyne and Kristal Dixon contributed to this report.