Timothy Jackson and Kvari Havard wait for their first day of class at Cleveland Central High School in August 2017.

CLEVELAND — Students in the Cleveland School District can’t receive laptops the district ordered for pandemic-related virtual learning because of human rights violations leveraged against manufacturing companies in China.

The district ordered 2,515 Chromebooks in preparation for virtual learning this fall, but they won’t come in time for the start of school because of the backorder these human rights violations has created.

On July 20, the U.S. Department of Commerce added 11 Chinese companies to the Entity List for practicing “forced labor and abusive DNA collection” on Muslim minorities, according to a U.S. Department of Commerce press release.

The Entity List formally prohibits these companies from being able to purchase U.S. technology and other goods and informally discourages U.S. companies from doing business with them at all.

“This action will ensure that our goods and technologies are not used in the Chinese Communist Party’s despicable offensive against defenseless Muslim minority populations,” said Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross in the press release. 

These Chinese businesses were producing parts for U.S. electronics companies, such as Samsung, which manufactures Chromebooks.  

Cleveland School District technology director Neil Gong said he found out about the human rights violations and the consequences it would have for students after the district’s Chromebook vendor called him about it. 

“Pretty much all tier one manufacturers (like Dell, Apple and Samsung) use multiple companies and manufacturing plants overseas, and 11 of them just got hit with human rights violations,” Gong said to the school board during an Aug. 3 budget hearing. “So they’re scrambling to move that manufacturing to some other manufacturing companies at the moment. There’s going to be at least a six week delay (to get Chromebooks).”

Both the Mississippi Department of Education and the Mississippi Association of School Superintendents said they haven’t heard of other districts around the state dealing with this issue, but a school district in Alabama has found itself in a similar situation. 

This comes after the MDE recently approved $165 million in bid awards to vendors tasked with supplying Chromebooks and Apple devices to children all over the state. 

To deal with the current shortfall, Cleveland School District “will be using the current devices that we have in the classrooms for face-to-face students. Virtual students will be using their own devices,” Gong said in an email.  

Enrollment numbers for the 2020-2021 school year have not yet been finalized, but last academic year Cleveland School District served 3,352 students. The school district is offering both traditional and virtual learning for the fall; as of Aug. 10, 1,037 students had opted for virtual learning. To opt in for virtual learning, parents had to note on a form that they had internet access as well as some sort of computer device.

Teressa McCarty, deputy superintendent of operations at the Cleveland School District, said that the delay will not prohibit the start of school, which is scheduled for Sept. 8. 

“Our goal is to become a one-to-one district, so that would mean every student has access to a Chromebook. We were phasing in getting them. So this situation delayed us getting our Chromebooks, which delayed our goal of increasing the amount of devices for student and teacher use,” McCarty said. 

McCarty added: “Education and instruction are always at the forefront. The principals and directors have been a phenomenal job with planning and we have put in over 100 hours of training for our teachers and other employees to make this work.”

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Kelsey Davis Betz is from Mobile, Ala., and currently lives in Cleveland, where she worked as a Mississippi Delta-based reporter covering education and intersecting issues. Kelsey has a dual degree in journalism and Spanish from Auburn University and worked as an editorial intern at Texas Monthly and a courts reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report and is a co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.