The digital divide for many during the pandemic starts with laptops.

Millions of American children are encountering all sorts of inconveniences that come with digital instruction during the coronavirus pandemic. But many students are facing a more basic challenge: They don’t have computers and can’t attend classes held online.

A worldwide surge in demand by educators for low-cost laptops and Chromebooks — up to 41 percent higher than last year — has created monthslong shipment delays and pitted desperate schools against one another. Districts with deep pockets often win out, leaving poorer ones to give out printed assignments and wait until winter for new computers to arrive.

That has frustrated many students, especially in rural areas and communities of color, which also often lack high-speed internet access and are most likely to be on the losing end of the digital divide. In 2018, 10 million students didn’t have an adequate device at home, a study found. That gap, with much of the country still learning remotely, could now be crippling.

“The learning loss that’s taken place since March when they left, when schools closed, it’ll take years to catch up,” said Angie Henry, chief operations officer for Guilford County Schools in North Carolina. “This could impact an entire generation of our students.”

For about a month, Samantha Moore’s four school-age children shared one iPad provided by the Guilford district and took turns going to class. Their grades have suffered as a result, she said. Eric Cole, who teaches Ms. Moore’s 13-year-old son, Raymond Heller, eventually secured more tablets for the family and other students through his church.

Sellers are facing stunning demand from schools in countries from Germany to El Salvador, said Michael Boreham, an education technology analyst at the British company Futuresource Consulting. Japan alone is expected to order seven million devices.

Global computer shipments to schools were up 24 percent from 2019 in the second quarter, Mr. Boreham said, and were projected to hit that 41 percent jump in the third quarter, which just ended.

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