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The Digital Divide Starts With a Laptop Shortage

When the Guilford County Schools in North Carolina spent more than $27 million to buy 66,000 computers and tablets for students over the summer, the district ran into a problem: There was a shortage of cheap laptops, and the devices wouldn’t arrive until late October or November.

More than 4,000 students in the district had to start the school year without the computers they needed for remote learning.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Angie Henry, the district’s chief operations officer. “Kids are excited about school. They want to learn.”

Millions of children are encountering all sorts of inconveniences that come with digital instruction during the coronavirus pandemic. But many students are facing a more basic challenge: They don’t have computers and can’t attend classes held online.

A surge in worldwide demand by educators for low-cost laptops and Chromebooks — up to 41 percent higher than last year — has created monthslong shipment delays and pitted desperate schools against one another. Districts with deep pockets often win out, leaving poorer ones to give out printed assignments and wait until winter for new computers to arrive.

That has frustrated students around the country, especially in rural areas and communities of color, which also often lack high-speed internet access and are most likely to be on the losing end of the digital divide. In 2018, 10 million students didn’t have an adequate device at home, a study by education nonprofit Common Sense Media found. That gap, with much of the country still learning remotely, could now be crippling.

“The learning loss that’s taken place since March when they left, when schools closed, it’ll take years to catch up,” Ms. Henry said. “This could impact an entire generation of our students.”

Sellers are facing stunning demand from schools in countries from Germany to El Salvador, said Michael Boreham, an education technology analyst at the British company Futuresource Consulting. Japan alone is expected to order seven million devices.

Global computer shipments to schools were up 24 percent from 2019 in the second quarter, Mr. Boreham said, and were projected to hit that 41 percent jump in the third quarter, which just ended.

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Credit…Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

Chromebooks, web-based devices that run on software from Google and are made by an array of companies, are in particular demand because they cost less than regular laptops. That has put huge pressure on a supply chain that cobbles laptop parts from all over the world, usually assembling them in Asian factories, Mr. Boreham said.

While that supply chain has slowly geared up, the spike in demand is “so far over and above what has historically been the case,” said Stephen Baker, a consumer electronics analyst at the NPD Group. “The fact that we’ve been able to do that and there’s still more demand out there, it’s something you can’t plan for.”

Adding to the problem, many manufacturers are putting a priority on producing expensive electronics that net greater profits, like gaming hardware and higher-end computers for at-home employees, said Erez Pikar, the chief executive of Trox, a company that sells devices to school districts.

Before the year began, Trox predicted it would deliver 500,000 devices to school districts in the United States and Canada in 2020, Mr. Pikar said. Now, the total will be two million. But North American schools are still likely to end the year with a shortage of more than five million devices, he said. He added that he was not aware of any large-scale efforts to get refurbished or donated laptops to school districts.

Districts that placed orders early in the pandemic have come out ahead, industry analysts said, while schools that waited until summer — often because they were struggling to make ends meet — are at a disadvantage.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, spent $100 million on computers in March and said in September that it was unaffected by shortages. But Paterson Public Schools in New Jersey had to wait until it received federal coronavirus relief money in late May to order 14,000 Chromebooks, which were then delayed because of Commerce Department restrictions on a Chinese manufacturer, Hefei Bitland.

In July, the Commerce Department added Hefei Bitland, which worked with the computer giant Lenovo, to a list of companies accused of using Uighurs and other Muslim minority groups in China for forced labor. That worsened laptop shortages just a month or two before schools were set to reopen.

“It took a bad situation and made it worse,” Mr. Pikar said. “It was quite dramatic — there were hundreds and hundreds of school districts that got caught.”

A spokesman for the Commerce Department said Lenovo should have known that “they are supplying computers to American schoolchildren that could have been produced from forced labor.” Lenovo did not respond to requests for comment.

Paterson was able to secure more laptops just nine days before school started, but other districts have not been as lucky.

Alabama schools are waiting for more than 160,000 devices, and Mississippi did not receive the first of the 320,000 computers the state had ordered until early October. Staples said it would receive 140,000 Chromebooks for schools in November and December, 40,000 of which are earmarked for California districts.

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Credit…Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times

Daniel Santos, an eighth-grade teacher in Houston, logs into his virtual classroom from home each morning and starts the day’s American history lesson. Once he turns his students loose to work on assignments, the hard conversations begin.

If students stop turning in homework consistently, Mr. Santos asks them privately: Do you have access to a laptop? One boy said he and his brother were sharing one computer at home, making it difficult for both to attend class. Others were completing assignments on their cellphones.

“It breaks my heart,” said Mr. Santos, who hears the “demoralization” in students’ voices. “They want to do their work.”

Nearly all of the almost 700 students at the school, Navarro Middle School, are Hispanic or Black, and most are eligible for free lunches. Mr. Santos said Navarro had been underfunded for years. It does not even have a functioning library, he said.

The district said it had spent $51 million and obtained more than 100,000 devices since April. But a month into the school year, Houston teachers are still encountering children without laptops.

Mr. Santos’s students are intelligent, inquisitive and unaccustomed to struggling in school, he said. But since classes started in early September, about 10 of his 120 students have told him that they need a laptop. For the first time, some are falling behind, he said.

Guilford County Schools, with 73,000 students, is encountering the same problem in North Carolina. The district ordered laptops in August with help from the March coronavirus relief bill, Ms. Henry said.

Many children in the area live in poverty and lack personal computers or reliable internet service, she said. Those who cannot attend virtual classes are receiving printed assignments delivered to their houses. Some are watching recordings of classes when they can log onto a device, and a small number have been allowed into district buildings for occasional access to computers and Wi-Fi, Ms. Henry said.

The district is pushing to resume some in-person instruction in late October because of the growing divide between rich and poor.

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Credit…Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

For about a month, Samantha Moore’s four school-age children shared one iPad provided by the Guilford district and took turns going to class. Their grades have suffered as a result, she said.

“Not everybody is financially stable enough to buy laptops, and some families are big like mine,” said Ms. Moore, the manager at a sports bar. “I can’t just go out and buy four computers.” She said she received food stamps, and had lost out on a $6,000 work bonus because the pandemic temporarily closed the bar.

Eric Cole, who teaches Ms. Moore’s 13-year-old son, Raymond Heller, eventually secured more tablets for the family and other students through his church.

Being unable to attend class was “a little frustrating,” Raymond said. Now that he has his own device, “the work is easy — the live classes make everything easier.”

In eastern Idaho, the Bonneville Joint School District is holding in-person classes, but hundreds of students have had to quarantine after possible virus exposure — and the district said it did not have enough Chromebooks for them all. It didn’t place its $700,000 order for 4,000 devices until late September because of budget challenges, said Gordon Howard, Bonneville’s technology director.

While they wait for the order, students without computers are missing out on education.

“Those that are behind continue to get further behind, and it’s through no fault of the kids at all,” said Scott Miller, the principal of the Bonneville district’s Hillcrest High School in Ammon.

Many students at the Sante Fe Indian School, operated by New Mexico’s Pueblo tribes, live in tribal homes without Wi-Fi access, said Kimball Sekaquaptewa, the school’s technology director. The school ordered laptops with built-in SIM cards that do not require Wi-Fi to connect to the internet.

But the delivery date for the July order was pushed to October, forcing students to start the school year without remote classes. Instead, they were asked to find public Wi-Fi twice a week to download and upload assignments.

“There’s a lot of frustration,” Ms. Sekaquaptewa said. “We really wanted to hit the ground running, and now we’re in limbo.”

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Still Reeling From Oil Plunge, Texas Faces New Threat: Surge in Virus Cases

HOUSTON — Things were looking up for Texas in recent weeks. Oil prices had managed an impressive rebound, more than doubling to just above $40 a barrel. Restaurants and small businesses were opening up in Houston, Dallas and elsewhere. And tens of thousands of people were getting back to work.

But a recent surge in coronavirus cases in the state is messing up that neat recovery story. Small businesses that had just reopened are closing again and oil prices have slid below $40 a barrel after weeks of gains. Energy executives say they remain optimistic, but some analysts are worried about the Texas economy, which would be the world’s 10th biggest if the state were a country.

Since businesses began reopening in early May, after a four-week statewide stay-at-home order by Gov. Greg Abbott that was only loosely enforced in some areas, optimism spread that the coronavirus pandemic was under control. People returned to their dentist offices, gyms and hair salons, and bars began doing brisk business, especially in the oil production hub of West Texas.

Many residents of the state, which last backed a Democratic presidential candidate in 1976, considered mask wearing a form of opposition to President Trump. And many business owners were reluctant to force their customers to cover their faces or stay apart.

But starting just after Memorial Day, Texas began to report a rise in coronavirus cases, a trend that has accelerated over the last 10 days. The state has recorded 130,000 cases, and nearly 3,000 deaths. Hospitalizations are on the rise.

Fears of the disease spread as grocery stores and restaurants reported that employees were getting sick, and Apple this week closed seven stores in Houston again. Other large retail chains like J.C. Penney, Ikea and Nordstrom said on Thursday that they were monitoring the situation but were keeping their Texas stores open.

Restaurant reservations on OpenTable have been dropping in recent days. Data from another online platform, the Home Base scheduling app, showed total hours worked by employees at small businesses were rising until Monday, but then stalled as the week progressed, according to analysts at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

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Credit…Erin Trieb for The New York Times
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Credit…David J. Phillip/Associated Press

“Certainly we’re concerned,” said Keith R. Phillips, an assistant vice president at the bank. “Staffing levels are beginning to flatten and decline and we’re hearing from our contacts that businesses that had sent workers home and brought them back are now sending them back home.”

On Thursday, Governor Abbott issued an executive order suspending elective surgery in four populous counties to ensure that hospitals have the space to care for coronavirus patients. He also paused further business reopenings.

William Presta, a barbershop owner in the Houston suburb of Bellaire, closed on March 22 and reopened on May 12. Business was going well until this week when demand suddenly dried up, he said, so he has decided to close the shop next week and take a vacation.

“I’m just being conscious and smart and trying to keep out of harm’s way,” he said.

Texans are accustomed to a gyrating economy that has long soared and tanked along with oil and natural gas prices. There have been four steep oil downturns in the last four decades. In the 1980s, for example, a sharp drop in oil prices devastated the state’s energy companies and banks. Three out of every four petroleum worker lost their jobs.

Over the years the state economy has diversified, with medical centers mushrooming in Houston and Dallas, and Austin becoming a technology hub. But energy remains a critical part of the state’s economy. The shale fracking revolution has made Texas the leader of a national energy boom and fueled an expansion of petrochemical plants and natural gas export terminals.

At the start of the year, Texas oil and gas companies appeared to be doing OK. The U.S. benchmark oil price hovered around $60 a barrel. When the pandemic took hold, and Russia and Saudi Arabia briefly flooded the market with oil, the price dropped to $20 a barrel in March, and then, in a first, briefly dropped to more than $37 below zero.

Oil companies shut down wells and stopped new drilling except when companies were legally obligated to employ rigs under contract.

More than 26,000 Texas oil workers — roughly one in four — lost their jobs in April, according to state employment data. That was the largest single month of oil and gas layoffs. But the impacts were far greater, rippling across the state, hurting businesses that serve the energy industry and its workers. Regional banks, many of which have large oil-company loan portfolios, are being strained, and investments in pipelines are being delayed.

The drop in oil prices and the spread of the coronavirus dealt a double punch and 1.3 million Texans lost their jobs in April.

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Credit…Bronte Wittpenn for The New York Times

But oil prices recovered faster than most analysts had expected as producers in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia and other countries cut back production. And as many states opened up their economies, gasoline demand started climbing. National average prices at the pump for regular gasoline have increased roughly 10 percent, or 20 cents a gallon, over the last month, according to the AAA motor club.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.