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Opinion: Debate About Phones in School is Over, Now Time for Action

There are more than enough studies showing the harmful effects of phone addiction on developing minds to justify imposing limits on using cellphones in school. Those who have done so are reporting all positive outcomes.

phone with padlock and "don't use me" text
(TNS) — It's hard to believe there is any debate at this point around students using their cellphones in school.

Every month brings new evidence of their damaging effects on kids' developing brains and mental health. Schools and districts across the country — even the world — are prohibiting their use in class and seeing an upturn in student performance when they do.

Last year, Florida became the first state requiring all public schools to ban student cellphone use during classes. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox hasn't gone that far, but he is urging the state's Board of Education to lay down rules removing cellphones from classrooms.

Yet Washington, where adults are wringing their hands over sagging student scores, has backed away from anything so strict. Rep. Stephanie McClintock, R-Vancouver, attempted to pass legislation asking the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to conduct a mere pilot study on the effects of banning cellphones. Her bill never made it to the floor. (OSPI plans to offer guidance anyway, according to a spokesperson.)

Fair enough. This is a strong local-control state. But this is also a moment for real leadership, and so far, few local school boards are showing it.

The Peninsula School District is an exception. Parents began begging for help controlling student cellphone use after the pandemic because kids, quite clearly, are unable to limit themselves — even when they see their grades slipping, their sleep waning. That should signal just how powerful the apps on these devices are.

"I'm not a clinician but it appears to be an addiction — just a complete inability to break away," said Kris Hagel, executive director of digital learning in the Peninsula schools, which serve Gig Harbor. He'd walk through classrooms, noticing that virtually every student was riveted on their handheld screen, oblivious to the teacher at the front of the room. "These were behaviors we never saw before," Hagel said.
I'm not a clinician but it appears to be an addiction — just a complete inability to break away ... These were behaviors we never saw before.
Kris Hagel, executive director of digital learning, Peninsula School District, Washington

Peninsula High School finally instituted an experimental ban last spring. It was so successful the school board made it districtwide policy this year.

"We've seen nothing but positives," says Peninsula School Board Vice President David Olson, who is running for state Superintendent of Public Instruction. Olson considers himself a staunch supporter of local control but said that if elected he would urge all Washington districts to adopt similar restrictions.

It is too early to tell if Peninsula's ban has improved student learning. But that data is coming soon. Olson, Hagel and likely every educator in the district are eagerly awaiting scores from this month's state exams.

In the meantime, students themselves have expressed gratitude to the adults for taking charge. They hadn't realized how distracted they were until their phones were gone.

Again, leadership. The school board in Gig Harbor anticipated blowback, but went ahead to do what felt educationally ethical. And the torrent of criticism never materialized.

Teachers, too, say they wish their districts would step up and take charge, rather than leaving it to each classroom to set rules. That is an important shift. Before the pandemic, many educators wanted the autonomy to set their own policies, said Brooke Brown, Washington's Teacher of the Year in 2021. No more.

Brown believes it's essential to understand the root cause of kids' cellphone obsession — a hunger for connection — and address it. The irony is that in Peninsula schools, kids are reporting vastly improved interpersonal relationships with their cellphones gone.

It's time for adults to step up and act like grown-ups. There are limits on all kinds of products that are clearly harmful to children — vape pens, cigarettes, booze. To leave classroom teachers and kids on their own with this obviously addictive technology is a dereliction of duty.

©2024 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.