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In the Zone

Story of the week: With back-to-school unclear, tech outlook is unclear too

Peter Krass's picture

by Peter Krass on 08/14/2020
Blog Category: devices

The new school year is about to begin. Are kids going back to their classrooms? Will they continue learning from home? And either way, what technology will they need?

The short answer: Nobody knows for sure right now.

That’s a big issue for tech providers. If you serve the ed tech market, wouldn’t you like to know what tech these customers will need?

Same if you support customers who are new to working from home and also have school-age kids. It would help to know what tech they will need.

What if you’re a parent of school-age kids yourself? In that case, you’d like to know what tech your family is going to need, too.

A lot depends on whether kids will be returning to school classrooms or whether they’ll continue learning from home. And in the United States, at least, no one seems to know for sure. Each state is setting its own rules, and the governors seem to be flying more or less blind. Consider a few examples.

The state of states

> New York: Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week said all the state’s schools can reopen, given the way the state has flattened the virus curve. But in New York City, the state’s biggest city by far, both principals and teachers have requested that the start of the school year be delayed beyond the planned date of Sept. 10; they say schools will simply be unable to prepare in time and be safe.

> New Jersey: Gov. Phil Murphy says any school in the state can remain completely online this fall, if it can document why it can’t safely offer in-person teaching. School is set to resume next month.

> California: By order of Gov. Gavin Newsom, neither public nor private schools can resume in-person classes if they’re in counties where the number of coronavirus cases is rising. As of last month, that included 32 of the state’s 58 counties — and all three of the state’s largest cities, L.A., San Francisco and San Diego. In response, a parents group has sued the governor, saying their children are suffering. School is set to resume later this month.

> Texas: Gov. Greg Abbott said local school leaders can decide whether and how to bring students back to classrooms. He also has blocked local health authorities from shutting down classrooms. School districts will be allowed to limit the number of students in classrooms on a case-by-case basis beyond the current 8-week max set by the state’s education agency.

In other words, for each of the 50 states, there's a different situation. And nearly all of them are complicated and still in flux.

Other issues

Uncertainty about school rules would be enough, but tech providers have even more complications to deal with.

Here’s one: Many families lack good PCs and reliable internet service. In Texas, for example, a recent survey of local teachers estimated that about 30% of the state’s school-age kids lack the right tech for online learning. In the same survey, teachers also estimated that 1 in 6 of the state’s school kids also lack access to high-speed internet service.

To meet this need, some states are buying equipment to give to these kids. Texas, for one, is spending over $250 million on laptops, tablets and internet hotspots. But other states are leaving it up to parents.

Rural families have issues, too. Often, internet and cell service in these areas is slow and spotty. How can these families get the tech needed to allow everyone to work and study from home? That’s not clear.

Even for families with decent Wi-Fi networks, a lot more zooming and skyping could put a strain on network bandwidth. In theory, this could be a good opportunity for resellers, retailers and others in the channel. But with nearly one in five U.S. workers now receiving unemployment benefits, how many families can afford to buy new and sometimes costly tech? That’s one more thing tech providers will soon be learning.


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