School cellphone rules: Why they’re such a difficult call for districts

The use of cellphones in schools has become an even thornier issue since students returned in person.

Is it possible to develop a school cellphone policy that let students carry their devices and also prevents distractions and disruptions? The leaders of Lewiston Public Schools in Maine set out to strike that balance with a new policy that sets different rules for different grade levels, Superintendent K. Jake Langlais says.

Students in pre-K through 8th grade must keep their phones turned off and in their backpacks throughout the school day. But high school students are only prohibited from using their phones during class time. They are allowed scroll, text and check social media in between class periods, during study halls or in the cafeteria.

Students need to remain engaged in instruction, and they also need to learn to make good decisions about when it’s appropriate to use phones, Langlais tells District Administration. “It’s our responsibility to prepare kids for what’s next,” he says. “When they are in college, they will know there’s a time and place to scroll through their phones. There’s also that workplace expectations component.”

Last school year, the district saw a significant spike in harmful online chatter, including cyberbullying and students planning fights or other misbehavior. There were also times when students did not come to school because they had been involved in a problematic online chat the previous night.

“We want to minimize the use of phones when they’re not necessary,” Langlais explains. “We also want to make sure students have opportunities to develop skills around self-control and to be mindful of who they are communicating with online, the types of conversations they are having and whether they might be causing harm to others.”

The use of cellphones in schools has become an even thornier issue since lockdown made the devices the sole method of communication for most students. Many administrators, meanwhile, want students to continue to reconnect in person with their classmates and teachers after the isolation of the pandemic.

Making eye contact in class

Well-known teaching guru Doug Lemov calls says that the growing number of cellphone bans are “super timely” in helping students bounce back academically and emotionally. “Students are disconnected psychologically and emotionally, and cellphones fracture attention,” says Lemov, creator of the Teach Like a Champion professional development model. “Giving kids the best chance to connect in schools and to form relationships with the people around them is vital right now.”

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But barring phones may not have as big an impact on attentiveness or engagement as many might hope, says Christopher Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University who studies the impact of technology on adolescents.

“There really are two parallel processes: one, cellphones are interesting and two, school is not,” Ferguson says. “Removing No. 1 doesn’t fix No. 2, unfortunately, and students have found ways to not pay attention in class for centuries.”

More than a few districts are allowing students to bring their phones to school but requiring the devices be placed each morning into Yondr pouches, which self-lock magnetically. Students open the pouches at wall-mounted demagnetizing stations on their way out of school at the end of the day.

Dayton Public Schools began using the pouches in high schools this year. In 2021-22, educators in the Ohio district struggled with a sharp increase in phone-related disruptions despite the devices being prohibited during the school day, Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli says.

“When they came back from being remote, students were constantly in violation of our policy,” Lolli says. “Fights would occur because they were arranged by cellphone or students were not engaged in learning because they were on social media.”

Administrators have received almost no pushback since introducing the pouches. A few have been cut open by students, who have been charged a $20 replacement fee and barred from bringing their phones to school. Disciplinary issues related to cyberbullying have decreased so far this school year.

“When I check in on classrooms, students are actually looking at teachers and making eye contact because they’re not looking down at their phones,” Lolli says. “And it’s fun to walk into the cafeteria because it’s really loud now. Students are talking instead of texting each other.”

When the communities talk cellphone policy

Getting total buy-in from staff is not necessarily a prerequisite for imposing a ban, Lemov warns. Educators will get on board if a policy is implemented effectively and intentionally. Educators can look for guidance from countries such as Australia and England, where schools have implemented bans successfully.

“I’m not saying kids shouldn’t have cellphones,” Lemov says. “But there should be a place in their lives where they can build cognitive abilities without the influence of this device that’s developing in society without much intentionality.”

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On the other hand, bans may end up being missed opportunities to use the devices as teaching tools and help students learn to manage technology, says Ferguson, the Stetson professor.

“It would take a bit of effort and imagination for teachers to incorporate technology into their lessons,” Ferguson says. “I think that without finding ways to make teaching more engaging, bans are treating a symptom more than the original problem.”

Leaders at North Kansas City Schools in Missouri realized cellphones were the biggest obstacle to student engagement after returning from virtual learning. The district acknowledged that students would recover more quickly from learning gaps if they were more focused during instruction. But its new policies still allow students to bring their cellphones to school; they just are not allowed to use the devices in class.

All students also have a district-issued computer that they can use to communicate with parents in case of an emergency. “Within a few days of the procedures going into effect, district leadership noticed an increase in student-to-student and student-to-teacher engagement,” North Kansas City administrators tell District Administration. “There has been a discernable difference in the number of positive interactions between students and teachers.”

Both Langlais in Lewiston and Lolli in Dayton say it’s crucial to get parents, students and other community members involved in creating cellphone policies. Lewiston received 600 responses to its cellphone survey prior to establishing its new policies. “That was a plus, getting the community talking about it,” Langlais says.

District leaders must also make their case by providing parents, staff and students with research that shows the benefits of restricting phones. “Before you put something in place, you need to have a solid plan,” Lolli adds. “It all depends on how well you explain it to parents or students. We were very thorough and that’s why had smooth transition.”

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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