When Florida officials in May issued a statewide ban on using cellphones in classrooms, administrators in one county felt they did not go far enough.
In a unanimous August decision, Orange County’s school board – overseeing one of the largest districts in the country – barred the use of cellphones or smart watches at any time during the school day, including at lunch or between classes.
“From bell to bell,” Orange County School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs told Context, summing up the ruling.
“Cellphones were being used rampantly. It seemed like when you walked down the hall, there were no students talking to each other,” she said.
The change comes amid a growing national debate on the increased use of digital devices after the pandemic and the effect it is having on academic achievement, socialisation and even violence in schools. “Teachers are trying to hold our students’ attention,” Jacobs said. “But they’re competing with this device.”
One study last year found that screen time for children rose by 52% during the pandemic, driven particularly by 12-to-18-year-olds getting their own devices.
Other studies have found the presence of a phone in class leads to lower grades and worse long-term retention of information. In addition to Florida, schools in at least seven states have banned phones or other devices this year.
In July, the United Nations education and cultural agency Unesco made an “urgent call” for stricter guidelines on the use of technology in classrooms, noting in part that “smartphones in schools have ... proven to be a distraction to learning, yet fewer than a quarter of countries ban their use in schools.”
Jacobs and her colleagues were motivated in part by studies in four of the district’s schools that over the past five years found that cellphone bans had resulted in an up to 47% reduction in physical fights between students.
Principals at those schools also found students more engaged in class and feeling less stressed – they even observed more interaction and “community” among students, according to findings supplied by Jacobs’ office.
Despite initial concerns by some in the community that the ban would complicate after-school pickup, limit parents’ ability to reach kids in an emergency, or contribute to pupils’ feelings of isolation at lunchtime, Jacobs said the new policy had seen almost no pushback since it was finalised.
“I’ve gotten exactly seven emails,” she said.
Human connection loss
Efforts to limit cellphones in the classroom are not new, but prior to the pandemic, resistance to their use “had begun to subside”, according to a February brief from the National Education Association, the country’s largest labor union.
As students filtered back into classrooms following pandemic shutdowns, however, teachers confronted something new.
“Pre-Covid, we had some kids who had cellphones, but they were very good about keeping them in their lockers, and we didn’t have many issues. Post-Covid it has become a bigger issue,” said Melissa Hinkson, who teaches fifth-graders at a public school in Arlington, Virginia.
Hinkson said her school allowed phones in school, but required they be kept in the student’s locker. She said the policy worked most of the time.
“But some kids don’t obey and do things they shouldn’t be doing – they watch TikTok and sensationalist stuff, or they videotape stuff that’s happening,” Hinkson said.
She said staff would confiscate phones until the end of the day, but said teachers lacked “clear-cut guidance”, and that was becoming increasingly complicated as more phones and smart watches turned up at school.
Arlington Public Schools encourages students to keep their phone in their backpacks or lockers unless as part of instruction, said spokesman Frank Bellavia, noting that the district was continuing to wrestle with the issue.
“There are ongoing conversations and some schools are trying new tactics. We are collecting data and will have additional conversations with schools throughout the year,” he said.
The US Department of Education said the issue was up to state and local officials and declined to comment further.
Arlington’s neighbor, Fairfax County, banned phones in public school classrooms last year and saw fewer than 10 infractions during the school year, the district said.
A mid-year report released in January found the consensus was that the ban had been “valuable”.
Yet there is also a broader social impact from the rise in device use after the pandemic, said Jamie, an elementary instructional coach in Fairfax County who spoke on condition that she be identified only by her first name.
Many students forgot how to “socialise with one another without a device,” she said, whether in simple greetings, managing one’s emotions, or communicating when help was needed.
“Not just turning to a device where you can zone out, actually being with others,” she said. “These skills now need to be taught and modeled.”
The pandemic’s effect in schools, Jamie said, was “not only the learning loss, but also the human connection loss.”
Yet as school officials look to address these trends, they need to be careful before issuing broad bans, said Lana Parker, an associate education professor at the University of Windsor in Canada.
Banning phones overlooks the widespread use of these devices for academic purposes, she said, especially by low-income students, and does not take into account the growing use of educational technologies often pushed by officials.
Bans also miss a key way that students increasingly understand the world, she said.
“One of the things that’s accelerated through the pandemic is young people’s engagement with online life and their reliance on it to foster a sense of self, to make sense of the world,” Parker said.
“The unilateral cellphone ban scratches the itch of wanting to reduce screen time, but ... where do kids go to make sense of these complicated encounters online if not in the classroom?”
Meanwhile, students themselves are well aware of the complexity of the issue, said Arlington’s Hinkson.
In classes on persuasive writing, the question of whether phones should be allowed in schools is one of few topics that students choose to write about every year, she said.
“You would think they’d all say yes, but some say no – ‘because they’re distracting. They take away our focus’.”