As laptop access increases, cellphones are being phased out of Frederick County classrooms.
Next academic year, students at Thurmont Middle School will be expected to have their personal devices “off and away” and rely solely on their assigned Google Chromebook for in-class work, said Principal Daniel Enck. The policy shift comes on the heels of the school becoming “1-to-1” capable last year, when it was able to assign one laptop to each student.
“We really have to be mindful of the appropriate use of our technology,” Enck explained.
Parents were the first to raise concern with the growing use of cellphones in schools, he said.
Phones can be used to send messages and to take pictures, which is a security concern for the school administration and individual students as children change classrooms over the course of a seven-period day, eat lunch and interact on the playground.
The school system as a whole has tried to get ahead of these safety concerns by adding “digital citizenship” to its curriculum in the past five years, said Michael Doerrer, director of communications for Frederick County Public Schools.
At the elementary, middle and high school levels, teachers talk to students about their digital footprint and appropriate ways to use technology. At Thurmont Middle School, these lessons are held on Wednesdays during “Gateway to Success” time, which is built into students’ schedules.
“We talk about the power of a tweet,” Enck said. “And everything on social media, how it doesn’t go away.”
In the past, cellphones served an educational purpose in the classroom, Enck said.
Students could do research on their smartphones’ browser and mark due dates on their phones’ calendars. But as Chromebooks have been phased into the schools, the academic need for a personal device has shifted to a school-owned one.
A personal device “really no longer serves that instructional purpose,” Enck said.
Students can now complete research and assignments posted by their teachers on Google Classroom on their Chromebook. And while students will not be specifically barred from carrying their cellphones with them during the day next year, the expectation now will be that the device is turned off, put away and out of sight, Enck said.
So far, students appear receptive to the policy, which was part of Enck’s community report sent out at the beginning of June.
“There was nobody that was outspoken against it,” Enck said.
That includes teachers, who have been asked to model the behavior the school expects of its students. Because at the end of the day, personal devices set up students — and faculty — to be distracted from the key purpose of being in school: learning.
Reflecting on his own cellphone use, Enck said having it vibrate in his pocket was enough to make him stop focusing on a meeting. The nagging question — is it important? — distracted him just as it would a student in a classroom.
“Personal devices set us up to be distracted,” Enck said.
Accessing all students
Making a school 1-to-1, however, requires funding.
The school board, lacking taxing authority, relies on the county and state for money.
For years, the Board of Education had asked the Board of County Commissioners and later the County Council for funding to transition the school system to 1-to-1. As of the 2017-2018 academic year, seven of 12 high schools and nine of 13 middle schools were 1-to-1 capable.
The school system also currently has one laptop for every three students at all its elementary schools for second through fifth grade, Doerrer said.
Internal budgetary constraints, however, have kept FCPS from fully implementing 1-to-1 laptop access at the higher grade levels.
In May, the Board of Education cut nearly $600,000 from a budget line for technology infrastructure, which includes Chromebook computer replacements and staff technology resources, The Frederick News-Post previously reported. The reduction in money for technology was one of several cuts to fix a $3.5 million budgetary shortfall.
Despite the cut, this summer FCPS will still expand laptops to the last four middle schools that are not 1-to-1: Ballenger Creek, Gov. Thomas Johnson, Walkersville and Windsor Knolls, Doerrer said.
FCPS will also expand laptops to ninth-graders at Middletown, Gov. Thomas Johnson and Urbana, with the intent of expanding laptops to grades 10 through 12 at the three high schools before the 2019-2020 academic year, Doerrer said.
“The idea is to have appropriate digital resources for all our students that are age-appropriate,” Doerrer said.