School & District Management

3 Ways School Districts Can Ease the Pain of Supply Chain Chaos

By Arianna Prothero — January 20, 2022 3 min read
Cargo Ship - Supply Chain with products such as classroom chairs, milk, paper products, and electronics
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Supply chain disruptions continue to create unprecedented challenges for school systems—as well as nearly every other industry—with little sign of letting up.

Experts warn that the omicron variant has thrown yet another wrench into the works as China orders new lockdowns to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, schools are struggling to purchase staples such as paper and milk. Food services have been hit especially hard.

In an acknowledgement of the ongoing disruptions and rising costs school districts are facing from supply chain troubles, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced it will offer a midyear increase to the reimbursements it gives for school meals—a rare move for the agency. Schools will get an extra 25 cents per lunch, which will add up to an increase of about $750 million nationally.

The global supply chain—which is more of an intricate web than most people appreciate—had major structural issues even before the pandemic. Crucial parts of the supply chain infrastructure, such as seaports, have not built up capacity to address a long rising demand for products. So, for experts like Ayman Omar, an associate professor of supply chain management at American University, it was no surprise when the pandemic pushed this already stretched system over the brink.

With such a global problem that involves international economic and political factors, multinational companies, airports, seaports, and national governments, what, if anything, can district-level administrators really do to tackle the issue?

There are three strategies within school districts’ control, say experts.

1. Have a risk management plan.

School district administrators need to know exactly how much of a shortage of a particular product they can manage and have a plan B, or C, or even D in place to deal with those different scenarios, Omar recently told Education Week.

“If it’s a 10 percent shortage, can they deal with it?” he said. “What about 20 percent? What about 30 percent? That doesn’t prevent the disruption issues, but it at least makes [schools] more agile and more responsive and be able to react quicker.”

2. Pay attention to what’s happening further up the supply chain.

Schools should be aware of what is happening further up the supply chain, which will help them make contingency plans. One way to gain some visibility in the fog is by constantly talking to vendors, peers, and counterparts in other districts about how long it is taking them to get orders, recommends Dianna Casper, the director of purchasing for the Denton Independent School District in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area.

See also

Shipping containers are stacked at the Port of Philadelphia, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021.
Supplies for many school needs are stuck in shipping containers in places like the Port of Philadelphia.
Matt Rourke/AP

3. Be adaptable.

This might mean putting in orders for school supplies 12 months ahead of time instead of 6 months, or purchasing food or cafeteria supplies from local farmers and restaurants rather than the regular suppliers.

The key to success, according to the Association of School Business Officials International, is fostering good relationships with vendors and remaining in constant communication with them. That way, districts can get better intelligence on the lead-time for deliveries.

Fixing the structural issues in the supply chain, however, are far outside the control of local school districts, said Omar. That rests with corporations, manufacturers, and national governments, he said. But if there is one benefit to the pandemic and the current supply chain mess, it’s that the problem is now out in the open and that the pandemic may finally pressure corporate and government leaders into taking action that can address these challenges for the long term, not just for the current crisis.

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