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News / Northwest

Should WA schools restrict cellphones? One district has.

By Jenn Smith, The Seattle Times
Published: December 31, 2023, 6:05am

SEATTLE— With fingers crossed, Gig Harbor’s Peninsula School District made the move to ban social media access and restrict cellphone use in classrooms this year. There has been less pushback than anticipated and some surprising gains, one district official said.

“We came out of the pandemic and realized something has changed about students and their relationships with their devices,” said Kris Hagel, the district’s executive director of digital learning for 17 years. “I’m not an expert, but it looked a lot like addiction.”

Hagel said he and other district and school leaders were hearing concerns from parents, teachers and even some students about distractions in classrooms. To check it out, Hagel visited some classes to observe.

“I would sit in the back of the classroom and just see ping, ping, ping all over the room, and it’s just kids getting messages. It was just constant throughout the day,” he said. “You would watch the kids completely check out of the instruction that’s happening, completely check out of the group work they might have been working on or the work they were doing by themselves and just completely dig into whatever is happening on their phone.”

Existing research on personal use of cellphones in class shows the devices have negative effects on test scores and knowledge retention. Evidence also connects cellphone and social media use in schools to cyberbullying and depression. But in the U.S., where school shootings and threats are endemic, some families and students argue the devices provide a sense of security and can soothe anxiety.

Some states, like California, Tennessee, and more recently, Florida, have passed legislation allowing schools to restrict or prohibit the use of personal mobile devices in schools. In Tennessee, students can even be fined for texting in class.

Washington has not passed legislation on the matter. Seattle Public Schools and other Washington districts have not adopted bans or restrictions at all, but some buildings have no-cellphone policies.

“We encourage our local school districts to continue to adopt policies and procedures, in partnership with their broader school community, that work best for their student’s learning and well-being,” said Katy Payne, spokesperson for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “At the state level, we are monitoring the implementation of these local policies to determine if a statewide approach should be considered in the future.”

While Washington legislators have made laws around distracted driving and maliciously sending explicit images on cellphones, Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, said the matter of school cellphone policies “will strongly be a local issue.”

Wellman, who chairs the Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee, said, “In an increasingly digital world, there is a role for technology” in schools, particularly where broadband signals are limited, and students and staff have to rely on their own devices and networks.

After doing research and gathering input from staff, students and parents, Hagel and other Peninsula School District officials wrote a policy and set of procedures to block all access to social media on district networks. The policy only permits students to use personal mobile devices before and after school, during lunch or upon an administrator’s approval.

Unlike policies in other schools and districts that require students to turn over their phones or lock them away, the Peninsula policy encourages students to keep their phones in their pockets, backpacks or lockers and trusts them to leave their phones alone during class.

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The School Board approved the plan in July. Since the start of the school year, issues with enforcing it have been minimal in the 8,684-student district.

Turning off social media access for a school network is as simple as toggling a parental control button on Netflix. But the school district’s network engineers are always fine-tuning access.

“That’s just something we deal with on an everyday basis,” Hagel said. “Kids are always finding ways around filters, and we’re finding ways to stop them from getting around the filters. It’s the cat-and-mouse game back and forth.”

Superintendent Krestin Bahr, Hagel and other district leaders have been visiting schools to talk with students, teachers and families about the effect of the policy.

So far, they’ve found some teachers are lax about enforcement but most staff and students abide. One school, which previously used QR codes to have students check in and out of classrooms, had to pivot.

The district policy treats violators with a “three strikes” response which would escalate from a warning to having the phone taken away or banned if multiple offenses occur.

Early reports show more positive gains than problems.

“Principals came back and said, ‘You know, it’s really actually different [this year],’” Hagel said. “Kids are sitting in class and talking to each other before the teacher starts talking. Or at assemblies, kids are actually sitting and having conversations with each other, and they’re talking more at lunch, even though technically they can pull their phones out.”

So far, some students have reported being more focused in class, seeing improvements in grades and having more interactions with classmates.

“The kids have been surprisingly positive about it,” Hagel said.

Because the social media bans are only restricted on the district’s network, the protocols do not prevent students from connecting via their own networks and data. And they’ve found some exceptions had to be made, such as unblocking Pinterest after art students and teachers made a case for using the image-sharing app for creative inspiration.

In addition to the new mobile device policy, the district also focused on “digital wellness” and offering children and families healthful guidelines about screen time and social media use.

The district is also trying to stay ahead of a new curve: artificial intelligence.

The goal, Hagel said, is to teach students how to use AI and cellphones appropriately, become “healthy digital humans” and treat technology as a powerful learning tool best used in moderation.

Wellman said she is concerned with how technology is used by young people to cause harm. “This is not just a school issue by any means. This is also an issue of parents getting involved,” she said.

She is currently working with area tech companies and educators to host a conference this summer in Bellevue where school leaders can learn about the latest technology and how to use it appropriately in classrooms.

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