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Parents Mixed on Worcester Schools' Cellphone Policy

A proposal at Worcester Public Schools in Massachusetts to allow students to keep their cellphones during the day but not use them in class for non-educational material has received both support and criticism.

Unlocked Cell Phones
(TNS) — With the Worcester School Committee ready to vote next Thursday on new guidelines that explain when students can use cell phones in school, some parents and teachers have mixed opinions about the proposal.

Some parents, such as John Sell, told MassLive that cell phones will distract students, and said they should store them in their lockers.

“Kids go to school to learn,” Sell said. “Some will use them to disturb the class and not listen.”

Others, such as Richard Levitt, expressed support for the proposal, arguing that students need to be safe from dangerous events such as school shootings by calling emergency services.

“It could be something as simple as a weather warning or something as terrible as an active shooter,” Levitt said. “Anything we can do to help save a life is worth the sacrifice of having cell phones in classrooms.”

That division in sentiment is reflective of the national mood as well, as mobile devices remain ubiquitous in the classroom and the hallways.

A majority of parents say they want their children to have access to their cell phones during the school day, with reasonable limits on when the devices can be used, according to a recent poll by the National Parents Union, an advocacy group that bills itself as the “united, independent voice of modern American families.”

The new school district policy up for a vote next week, states that cell phones, smartphones, tablets, earbuds, and cameras can be used for educational purposes only at the discretion of the classroom teacher and building administrator — or if a school staff member is unavailable during an emergency.

The policy also details guidelines on using earphones, stating that they can be used for study purposes and during non-instructional periods such as lunch breaks.

“In the Worcester Public Schools, we recognize the value of technology in education and the importance of creating an environment conducive to learning. Wireless and corded earphones (‘Air Pods’) and other personal audio devices can enhance the learning experience when used responsibly,” the policy reads. “We have established this acceptable use policy to ensure that such wireless devices are a positive addition to our educational environment.”

If students do not follow these guidelines, the proposal states that they will face consequences. For minor offenses, students will receive a warning.

For continued violations, the electronic device or earphones may be confiscated until the end of the day. The policy states that a meeting with the student’s parents may be held for persistent violations to “discuss the issue and find a resolution.”

The proposed guidelines dictate that cell phones cannot be used in class for non-educational material, such as video games or social media. Students are also expected to silence their phones during times they are not allowed to use them.

Nevertheless, Sell, along with other parents like Christine Knudsen, a teacher and former collaborator at Worcester Public Schools, still do not support having cell phones in classrooms.

“I’m a teacher and they are a distraction,” she said. “We grew up without phones and this generation can too.”

While both Sell and Knudsen believe students will become too distracted by their phones in class, one parent, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote an email to MassLive that said their child benefits from having a cell phone available for instances when they become overwhelmed in class.

“My child does need to use their cell phone to help when things get too loud or confusing and they need to play music on their headphones to help center themselves,” they wrote.

Despite the varying opinions about whether students should have access to cell phones in class, some parents support the policy because it allows students to have their phones during emergencies.

According to the proposal, students are expected to report to school staff members if an emergency threatens their safety or the safety of others.

If a staff member is not available and the situation takes place outside school hours, the student can use their cell phone to contact emergency services, guardians or parents.

Lisa LoBianco, a volunteer at CASA Project Worcester County, said there are situations where she worries about the safety of her child, such as school shootings.

“If my child is in an emergency situation like a school shooting or is being bullied I want them to be able to call me,” LoBianco said. “I think allowing the kids to have their phones and use them responsibly maybe do it as a pilot to start with incentives for responsible phone use.”

The new proposal is an update to the previous cell phone policy laid out in last year’s student handbook, school district spokesperson Dan O’Brien told MassLive.

The previous policy states that electronic devices considered “distracting” cannot be used by a student unless they are given explicit permission by school staff.

But it did give specific situations of where or when they could be used.

O’Brien said the school administration held meetings with students, faculty and teachers to develop a proposal that explains when and how these devices can be used.

“The proposed policy would include guidelines for acceptable use and is being updated to reflect the technological changes that have occurred in recent years,” O’Brien said.

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