Lois Jarman, a member of the Frederick County Board of Education, wants to schedule a discussion of the school system’s policy on students and cellphones, with an eye toward severely restricting their use.
It is a legitimate issue for the board to consider, but it is going to be a difficult one to get widespread agreement on. Educators, parents and students all differ on the proper use of smartphones in school.
When the board begins grappling with the issue this fall, its members are likely to find it a challenge. A brief online search shows that schools have been seeking the right solution for more than 15 years, when far fewer students had access to cellphones.
American University’s School of Education reported last fall: “Nearly 75 percent of teens have access to a smartphone, and with open Wi-Fi networks in schools, libraries, and at home, staying connected is effortless.” The report said 94 percent of teens with a smartphone go online every day, often at school.
“Teachers already struggle with maintaining students’ attention during class, and with cellphones’ providing other ways to ‘escape’ the classroom, many teachers feel that students’ grades have declined as a result,” the AU report said.
But on the other hand, smartphones are incredible tools for finding information, from the correct spelling of a word to the capital of Syria. Teachers can share videos that help children better understand complex topics, such as scientific principles. Research has even shown that some children are better able to concentrate on assignments while listening to music playing through their phone.
Beyond students, parents love having easy access to their children throughout the day, to discuss changing schedules for doctor visits, hear about everyday problems or to confirm pickup times.
Of course, access to cellphones by students was of prime importance during the emergencies at schools such as lockdowns and — worst of all — shootings. Most parents will be loath to give up the ability to quickly contact their kids during a dangerous situation.
School board members said the current rules can vary greatly from school to school in the county. Jarman said she hopes her request will lead to a standard policy across the district, and that would be a reasonable solution.
But Jarman told our reporter that she wants to institute a policy similar to those recently adopted at Thurmont and West Frederick middle schools, requiring students to keep cellphones turned off and stored in the lockers or backpacks, a policy called “off and away.”
We are concerned that the policy, especially if implemented at the high school level, could go too far. One concern is that overly restrictive rules would lead students to subvert and ignore them, and that’s not the kind of behavior we want to encourage in our children. It also seems as though we would be punishing all students for the misdeeds of a few.
Phones should be silenced to avoid disrupting class and should be available to use only for legitimate functions. Teachers and principals should have the power to remove devices from students who are misusing them, but not completely ban them from the classroom.
The American University report warned: “As smart home devices emerge and wearable technologies become further integrated into our lives, we may be at a point where we can’t separate ourselves — and students — from technology.”
With a fast-evolving digital world, we need to harness its power, not try to outlaw it. Let’s try to write a new policy with that in mind.