York City, schools nationwide face device shortage compounding learning gap

In this file photo Pre-K co-teacher Megan Runk, upper right, works with student Dahjmir Gaines, lower right, on an iPad during afternoon work time at Hannah Penn K-8 School in York, Pa. on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. (Dawn J. Sagert - The York Dispatch)

York City Superintendent Andrea Berry recently shared a story about Davis K-8 Principal Mindy Sweitzer hunting down laptops or iPads from students who transferred out of the district.

"She researched where the district was that they were going and called that district and asked them not to enroll the students until we got the device back — and the device was in the mail two days later," Berry said.

Though the measures might seem extreme, they highlight an issue that's affecting not only York City but districts nationwide: a shortage of technology for online learning.

As districts and schools have rushed to order laptops and iPads for students in preparation for virtual classes, officials are getting more and more concerned as the start of school approaches — and has arrived for some — with some equipment still on backorder.

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An Associated Press study noted dozens of schools nationwide are waiting on laptops delayed both by an interruption in the supply chain since the spring and new sanctions from the United States government.

The U.S. Department of Commerce has restricted Chinese manufacturers who made  parts for some computer companies such as Lenovo, because of child slave labor.

Demand skyrocketed in the spring as schools that shut down suddenly were forced to place orders for hundreds of laptops or other devices to ensure their student-to-computer ratio was 1:1.

More:CLOSER LOOK: York County school districts' focus shifts to virtual learning amid shutdown uncertainty

Some districts already were 1:1 but needed updates as old equipment was failing, while others were dealing with a technology gap that could not be addressed right away.

Unfortunately, lack of access disproportionately affects urban districts with a higher ratio of poverty, said Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, director of activism at Brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists, when reached Tuesday.

York City falls into that category, with the highest poverty level among the county's 16 public school districts at 92% in 2018-19, the most recent year of data from Lincoln Intermediate Unit 12.

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A lack of devices for every student led the district to delay new instruction last spring for fear that some students would fall behind.

National Center for Education Statistics data shows a five-year rolling average through 2018 of children enrolled in public schools who live in households with computers. York City had 88.6% who fit this bill, compared with 97% or higher for neighboring districts, give or take 3.7%. This would not include those ordered in response to COVID-19. 

In this May 8, 2019, photo, third-grade student Miles Stidham uses an East Webster High School laptop to do homework in Maben, Miss. The Stidhams are unable to get internet at their home in the country, so they take advantage of the internet in the school's library. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Sankara-Jabar also said 15 million children nationwide still don't have internet access.

Her organization has been lobbying government officials and private companies to make broadband a utility like electricity — which during pandemic shutdowns was restricted from being shut off by companies.

Only 70.2% of households with children enrolled in public schools, give or take 5.4%, had broadband internet subscriptions in York City before the pandemic.

The next lowest percentages came from Northeastern (86.1%), Hanover Public (86.6%) and South Eastern (88.3%.)

A lack of new devices has prompted York City officials to work extra hard to get back those that were loaned out this summer — even though normally the district's 75% return rate would be good.

"We ordered a set of devices back in May that just came in today. We ordered a set of devices in mid-June that we still don’t have yet, and I think we ordered another set of devices in July that are not here yet," Berry said.

"So we have the better part of 3,000 devices almost coming in," she added.

So far they are handing out devices with priority to those who don't have a personal one at home and encouraging those who do to use it until the new ones come.

But some board members on Monday had concerns about cost, as the district can't afford to continually replace devices — which run between $300 and $400 each. Some  even suggested reporting the devices as stolen through the local magistrate.

"There has to be some kind of consequence," said board member Tonya Thompson-Morgan.