Officials: Laptops for Alabama schools seized by US agency

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More than 4,000 new laptop computers bound for an Alabama school district are being held by customs due to human rights concerns, weeks before the school year is set to begin with increased online learning amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to education officials.

Etowah County Schools Superintendent Alan Cosby said Tuesday that his district ordered the Chromebook computers in June through a reseller called Trinity3 Technology, which helps supply schools with remote learning technology.

The laptops were scheduled for delivery to his system this week, but the company informed district officials that the computers were being held by the U.S. Department of Commerce in customs because they involved an electronics manufacturer accused of involvement in human rights violations in China, Cosby said.

Cosby said his district, which surrounds the city of Gadsden, was told it might not receive the products until October.

The superintendent said the holdup involved Hefei Bitland Information Technology Co. Ltd., one of 11 Chinese companies that the U.S. imposed trade sanctions on last month as the Commerce Department cracked down on imports made with suspected forced labor, as well as companies implicated in other human rights abuses in China’s Muslim northwestern region of Xinjiang.

Scott Gill, President and CEO of Trinity3 Technology, said he could not comment specifically about Etowah’s order because the company does not disclose customer-specific information, but confirmed: “a number of devices were held up that were scheduled for deliveries to schools across the country.”

Cosby said he never received any communications from Commerce Department or customs officials, but did reach out to the offices of U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby, a Republican, and Doug Jones, a Democrat, as well as Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt, to resolve the issue.

He spoke with Aderholt but later opted to cancel the district’s order and purchase laptops from another vendor that could deliver them by September.

Classes were scheduled to begin Aug. 17 for more than 8,000 students in the district, about 1,600 of whom opted to begin the year with distance learning, AL.com reported.

Cosby added that Etowah County schools already have about 5,000 computers, some older models, that could be used in the interim, but it would not be enough to cover all of its students if classes were to go entirely remote.

“We were depending on that as a resource if we had to go entirely remote learning,” Cosby said. “We’ll be able to start school and do OK, but … time is critical on this. It’s just another unanticipated obstacle.”

Ryan Hollingsworth, director of the School Superintendents of Alabama, said Tuesday that Cosby informed other Alabama education leaders about the situation during a district meeting Thursday. Hollingsworth then sent out a survey to the more than 100 other districts in the state and found that nearly 20 others were still awaiting more than 33,000 computers that had not yet been delivered.

He said he could not confirm whether any of those were being held by U.S. agencies, though he said he believes the Etowah County district is not the only one in that position.

“I know that’s not the only district,” Hollingsworth said, “I’m 100% sure of that.”

The U.S. Commerce Department could not immediately be reached for comment.

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