From copy paper to milk to laptops, schools are struggling to get the supplies they need to run their day-to-day operations, and experts say the situation won’t be resolved any time soon.
Although students may not always be aware of the issues, school administrators who deal with procurement—whether it’s purchasing food, office supplies, furniture, or technology—are working nonstop to keep their schools stocked as supply chain nightmares have wreaked havoc for schools and other industries across the country. It illustrates how K-12 schools are part of—and beholden to—a global web of factories, ports, and distributors more than most people probably realize.
The problem has been particularly acute for food services, an area where students are most likely to notice the disruptions.
“It’s really challenging for our team members who love kids to not be able to give them the items they like and expect,” said Doug Wordell, the director of nutrition services for the Spokane schools in Washington state. “It’s not that a burger isn’t good, they just wanted the chicken. And now you’ve got a kiddo showing up in line who looks at you with tears—and some of these kids, the emotional issues that we’re dealing with now in schools are dramatically different than five years ago. Kids will tilt over little things.”
In a national survey by the School Nutrition Association, 98 percent of food service directors said their top three problems right now are a lack of available menu items, lack of packaging and supplies, and menu items getting discontinued by suppliers. Three-quarters of respondents said that higher costs of items—a sign of inflationary pressures in the economy—are creating significant challenges for them, too.
It’s a perfect storm that is happening—it’s not just one thing that has taken place, it’s all of those factors piling up over time.
It’s not just food services feeling the pinch.
“Six months ago, it was lumber, now it’s steel, and paper and pulp, and it’s like trying to read a crystal ball,” said Dianna Casper, the director of purchasing for the Denton Independent School District in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area.
For districts with growing student enrollments, like Casper’s, lumber and steel are needed for everything from new classroom furniture to construction projects. In addition to shortages in paper—a critical mainstay of any school—schools are also struggling to purchase enough laptops due to major chip shortages affecting a range of industries including automobile and toy manufactures.
What’s wrong with the supply chain?
The term “supply chain” is a bit of a misnomer. The word “chain” makes people think that the procurement and movement of goods is a linear process when, in reality, it’s far more complex, said Ayman Omar, an associate professor of supply chain management at American University.
“It’s easy to see a chart with boxes and arrows, but it’s a very, very complicated process to get a product from A to Z, because each entity has its own universe of suppliers and chains,” he said. “A car has almost 2,000 parts in it, and each part is a product in and of itself, and that part has its own supply chain.”
And it doesn’t take much to knock that process out of balance, said Omar. Like an airport, a single delay sets off a whole series of delays and before you know it, “it becomes complete chaos” he said.
The global supply chain had major structural issues predating the COVID-19 pandemic. As demand for more and more products has gone up over the years, crucial pieces of infrastructure, such as seaports and airports, have not increased their capacity sufficiently to keep up. Throw in a disruptive event, said Omar, be it a pandemic or a shipping container stuck in the Suez Canal, and that delicate web of factories, air and sea ports, shipping companies, and consumers (to name only a handful of supply chain parts) unravels.
Add to that labor shortages, said Omar, in particular among truck drivers, and you have the situation we’re in now.
“It’s a perfect storm that is happening—it’s not just one thing that has taken place, it’s all of those factors piling up over time,” he said. Pre-COVID, said Omar, people had the attitude that “as long as we are getting the products, no one cares how stretched the system is.”
How supply chain disruptions are impacting schools
Now, all aspects of K-12 schooling are feeling the effects of an overburdened supply chain. The Association of School Business Officials has heard from districts across the country that are facing long lead times—especially on furniture—and delayed orders.
“Basically, nothing has been untouched by supply chain disruptions and rising prices,” said Elleka Yost, the director of advocacy at ASBO, from athletic equipment such as helmets and balls to items that rely on computer chips like laptops and smart thermometers. “There is just this whole spaghetti noodle tangled mess contributing to what we’re seeing.”
Flush with federal aid dollars, school districts are all making big purchases at once, said Yost, exacerbating the problem.
Shortages and increased prices can be especially trying for growing districts with multiple construction projects underway, such as Casper’s in Denton, Texas.
“We had placed a classroom furniture order on a renovation, fairly far in advance, then came to find out that one part to build the teacher’s desk was sitting in a container trying to get into the port,” she said. “It took about three months to get that part from the container to the port and here to North Texas so that we could get that teacher’s desk built.”
Casper said she doesn’t anticipate seeing significant changes for the better in the supply chain until 2023.
Basically, nothing has been untouched by supply chain disruptions and rising prices ... There is just this whole spaghetti noodle tangled mess contributing to what we’re seeing.
Another frustrating issue schools are experiencing are purchases in which they are only receiving partial orders.
“We did get one order where they shipped us approximately 30 percent of the order of the Chromebooks,” said Howard Barber, the assistant superintendent of finance and operations in Mattapoisett, Mass. “When the Chromebooks came in, there were no chargers.”
Shortages of warehouse workers and truck drivers means food isn’t getting delivered, said School Nutrition Association spokesperson, Diane Pratt-Heavner, driving some districts to find creative solutions.
“We’ve heard from schools that are finding these new local vendors—a local restaurant that can supply menu items,” she said, and some districts have even started sourcing some fruits and vegetables from local farmers.
But while that strategy might work for smaller school districts, it’s generally not a solution for larger ones.
“We would need 20,000 portions a day,” said Wordell. “You can’t just go pick that up at Costco. We would wipe them out.”
On the flip side, bigger districts are more likely to have warehouses and excess refrigerator space, allowing them to store more items.
In addition to shortages of food, schools are also having trouble procuring enough trays and paper cups—and keeping enough cafeteria staff on hand—to serve the food they do get.
How schools should handle shortages of supplies
When necessities get delayed, districts have to scramble to buy the items elsewhere, sometimes at higher prices.
This can turn into a budgeting nightmare for schools, said David Lewis, the executive director of ASBO.
“One thing that school districts don’t like is when they got something agreed to, it’s in the budget, and then all of a sudden whoever they are getting it from comes back and says we need to redo the contract, and there is a whole can of worms that gets opened with procurement issues,” he said.
To make matters worse, districts that have seen student enrollment drop during the pandemic now are receiving less money from their states just as they are dealing with increased costs from supply chain problems, said Lewis.
Various economic forecasts predict that supply chain disruptions will likely drag on for a while, and resolving those issues are far beyond the control of local school districts.
Fixing the supply chain is something that must be done by corporations, manufacturers, and national governments, said Omar, and if there’s a silver lining to all this, the pandemic may jolt corporate and government leaders into taking long overdue action.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t help school districts in the near term. While there is a lot outside of the control of district leaders, school districts aren’t completely helpless so long as they plan, said Omar. The key, he said, is having a risk management plan.
“If there is a food shortage, if there is a computer shortage, do they have a plan B?” he said. “If it’s a 10 percent shortage, can they deal with it? 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.”
Schools should also do all they can to improve their understanding of what is happening further up the supply chain, said Omar.
For Casper, that means talking to vendors, peers, and counterparts in other districts about how long it is taking to get orders.
“I just have to be prepared,” she said. “I can’t afford to not be prepared with a growing district.”
For school district leaders who deal in procurement, the pandemic has forced them to adapt. They say they are figuring out workarounds and finding a new—albeit chaotic—rhythm to their work.
Casper used to order items six months before she needed them. Now she’s putting in orders at least 12 months ahead of time.
ASBO recommends that districts strive to maintain open communication and good relations with their vendors as they can help give districts a more thorough picture of lead-time on deliveries.
“It’s being as proactive as you can,” said Barber, “because we’re not guaranteed anything.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as Still Waiting for Milk and Laptops? Supply Chain Mess Makes School Necessities Hard to Get