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Schools crack down on cellphones, sparking debate on safety and tech use

Schools are finding creative ways to stop students from using their cellphones during the day, fueling debates about the effectiveness and wisdom of such bans.

Some schools have partnered with companies to implement the use of pouches that students are required to put their phones into at the beginning of the day and that don’t unlock until the final bell rings, while others are threatening punishments including suspension if a student is caught with their phone, even at lunch time.

Educators appear ecstatic about getting students off their phones during class, but there are lingering concerns from both parents and children about being phoneless in emergency situations and if this is the best way to address the problem.

Renesha Parks, chief wellness officer at Richmond Public Schools in Virginia, told The Hill of a pilot policy being implemented in six schools at the beginning of 2024 to stop cellphone usage, partnering with Yondr, which creates magnetic pouches for cellphones. The measure will impact around 4,200 students and cost approximately $75,000.

“It’s a very costly initiative. But we do feel like it will decrease the amount of infractions that are happening as a result of student’s cellphone use and increase productivity and academic instruction in the classroom. It’s worth the investment,” Parks said.

While she said educators in the district were thrilled with the idea, the support for it is split among parents and students.

“One of the things that we’ve been sharing with parents throughout this process — and we’ll have some additional town halls with parents just to kind of talk about the process and alleviate their concerns — when we were growing up, if a parent needed to get in contact with us, they call the front office, and the same will still be true now,” Parks said. “They can either contact the teacher, they can contact the counselor, they can contact the front office if they need to get in contact with their students.”

Success of the program, she said, will be judged based on feedback surveys as well as student achievement and discipline data.

In 2020, government data found almost 80 percent of schools banned cellphones for nonacademic purposes, but enforcement varies widely around the nation.

The Washington Post editorial board endorsed cellphone bans in schools last week, saying “parents should welcome and support” schools in this effort.

“For less dire — and far more common — emergencies, students would be better served by learning how to deal with a forgotten assignment or extracurricular themselves,” the paper’s editorial said.

Schools previously often had policies where cellphone usage in classrooms was up to individual teachers, but that caused some students to try to bend the rules in other parts of the building.

“Teachers know the expectations are, I think, any version of a policy that isn’t zero tolerance, so to speak, allows for inconsistent expectations from classroom to classroom and teacher to teacher,” said Victor Pereira, lecturer on education and co-chair of the Teaching and Teaching Leadership program at Harvard.

One study found that test scores increased by 6.4 percent after schools banned cellphones, and the effect was doubled for low-achieving students.

But along with improved academics, experts say cellphone bans can help children with socioemotional learning.

“What’s happening is that kids and teens are telling me that they’re not sitting with their feelings because if something happens in class, if a teacher looks at them wrong, where they get a bad grade, they say they have to go to the bathroom, and they go to the bathroom and they’re texting their mom,” said Roni Cohen-Sandler, a clinical psychologist and author of the book “Anything But My Phone, Mom!” “And so, they’re sort of dumping all of this on their moms and they’re not sitting with feelings themselves.”

“They’re not developing tolerance for frustration. They’re not sort of pushing themselves in terms of developing coping skills for dealing with uncomfortable feelings and they’re not solving problems by using the resources that are available to them in school,” Cohen-Sandler said.

However, outside of arguments about students having access to phones in emergency situations, some say bans don’t not teach children how to use cellphones responsibly, or solve the primary problem.

“The far better approach is to make sure you create a culture in your school of healthy tech use. And there are schools all over the place that have done it, and it’s great and it works. But schools don’t do it and don’t take the time to create a healthy tech culture and just want to ban tech, and that just harms kids,” said Richard Culatta, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education.

Culatta said schools need to be looking at how to teach students the “dos” of technology as well as the “don’ts” and not to tackle the issue by avoiding it.

“We got to teach those skills. They’re essential. Nobody on the planet would tell me that healthy tech skills aren’t needed for future jobs and future life happiness, right,” Culatta said. “So then why on Earth would we not be teaching those skills that we know are so important?”

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