School & District Management

Schools Can More Easily Get Food, Laptops as Supply Chain Problems Fade

By Mark Lieberman — January 22, 2024 2 min read
Bell Beverage owner Frank Bell, rear left, watches as employee Anthony Casalena loads chromebooks onto one of their trucks to deliver to district schools, at School District Headquarters in Philadelphia on April 6, 2020.
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Far fewer schools are struggling this school year to secure crucial goods like cafeteria menu items and laptops because of supply chain disruptions than at the same time last school year, new survey data show.

In October 2022, only 17 percent of schools reported they weren’t having any procurement issues caused by supply chain disruptions. A year later, in November 2023, that number had leapt to 48 percent.

Schools both years most often cited food services as the area most affected by supply chain disruptions. But this year, only 27 percent of schools reported food-related issues, compared with 54 percent the previous year.

These data come from the National Center for Education Statistics’ School Pulse Panel, a monthly survey examining ongoing challenges schools face. The new data, which the federal center published earlier this month, come from a nationally representative group of more than 1,500 schools from every state and the District of Columbia, which were surveyed in November.

The fragility of the international supply chain became visible in an unprecedented way during the early years of the pandemic, when widespread manufacturing shutdowns and volatile demand for products snarled the complex web of shipping on a global scale.

In response, many schools adjusted their operations to account for delays and shortages of items they need to keep in-person instruction running.

But survey results across the country, from high-poverty and low-poverty schools alike, as well as from large and small schools, show measurable improvement in procurement over the past year.

Still, slightly more than half of schools reported that supply chain challenges continue to affect their access to some supplies.

Detroit, for instance, recently altered its daily menus after a strike among workers at its largest food supplier delayed shipments of key items. Schools in several states also temporarily altered their milk offerings after a significant disruption in the production of milk cartons last fall.

Aside from food, laptops and other electronic devices have also proved harder to get because of supply chain problems in many districts—just shy of a quarter of respondents said in November that they’ve encountered difficulty securing the equipment, but that was down from 48 percent of schools in October 2022.

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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

To be sure, concerns about supply shortages continue to play out in noticeable ways.

A new high school building in Dinuba, Calif., will open months behind schedule thanks to massive delays in securing crucial electrical equipment. Several districts in Georgia are facing delays of up to a year for the arrival of new school buses to replace aging vehicles.

Still, nearly four years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the ripple effects from those disruptions appear to be easing.

The percentage of schools that reported having to reduce options for students and staff as a result of supply chain issues has dropped, from 47 percent in October 2022 to 23 percent in November 2023.

Seventeen percent of schools in November 2023 said they temporarily operated without adequate equipment as a result of supply chain issues, compared with 38 percent the year before.

In the area of food service, a more pressing issue for many schools is a shortage of qualified staff. The percentage of schools reporting nutrition staff shortages increased from 32 percent in October 2022 to 41 percent in November 2023, the School Pulse Panel survey shows.

Recently released data from the survey also include findings on school improvement plans and absenteeism.

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Vector illustration of diverse children, students climbing up on a top of a stack of staggered books.
iStock/Getty

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