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Phone Ban Produces 'Remarkable' Change at Orange County, Fla., Schools

In the four months since Orange County Public Schools in Florida banned students from using cellphones at school, teachers and staff have seen positive changes. Some students are irked they can't use phones at lunch.

East River High
East River High School senior Justin Winn tosses a football with classmates during lunch, Thursday, December 7, 2023. The school offers students games and activities during the lunch hour after Orange County Public Schools banned students from using cellphones anytime during the school day.
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS
(TNS) — New rules that require cellphones to be silent and tucked away in backpacks all day made Sarah Speight’s classroom a better place this semester. Students were more focused on lessons, the Boone High School teacher said, and more willing to engage in discussions.

When Speight caught one student passing a handwritten note to another, she couldn’t help but smile at the old-school communication. “Oh, I just was tickled by it. It made me happy,” she said with a laugh.

In her view, Orange County Public Schools’ ban on phones during the school day — a rule in effect even during lunch — has been a four-month success story.

“The learning change in the classroom is remarkable. Students are engaged because they’re not getting notifications in their pocket,” said Speight, who teaches ninth-grade English and Advanced Placement literature. “I would predict that we’re going to see a positive impact on test scores for the schools that have implemented this with consistency.”

Educators and school leaders across Central Florida’s largest school district report similar benefits, though they don’t yet have data to back up their sense of success.

The Orange County School Board adopted the new rule in August, joining what Education Week, an education newspaper, reported in October was a growing national trend. OCPS leaders hoped the ban would help curb discipline problems, which skyrocketed after the pandemic and were often fueled by social media, they said.

They also wanted to limit distractions in class, encourage in-person communication among students and tamp down on what many studies say are screen time’s detrimental impacts on children’s mental health.

A new Florida law required districts to ban phones during “instructional time,” but Orange’s school board took it a step further by requiring them to be put away in backpacks, even during breaks between classes and lunch.

“I have only seen positive things,” said Becky Watson, principal of East River High School in east Orange.

But students did not like the new rules and, when they kicked in, weren’t always compliant.

“In the beginning, we were taking quite a few phones,” said Watson, who estimated at least 20 East River students a day had phones confiscated during the first weeks the rule was enforced.

Those students then had to wait in long lines after school to collect them.

“Students didn’t like to wait in line at the end of the day and started complying,” she said.

After the ban was announced in early August, more than 13,700 people signed an online “stop the OCPS phone ban” petition, with many of the comments from unhappy students.

Now, students said they’ve mostly adjusted to keeping their phones away, but the lunchtime ban still annoys them.

“Lunch is like our freedom,” said Ky’Mijia Thomas, 17, a senior at East River.

“During lunch is a little excessive,” agreed Justin Winn, 17, also a senior.

At East River, administrators have made card games and chess boards available in the cafeteria and allowed teenagers to toss balls in the courtyard during lunch, encouraging them to engage with each other now that phones are prohibited.

Justin and Ky’Mijia are among the usual group throwing a football back and forth.

Some parents questioned the rule — which also bans Apple Watches and similar devices as well as earbuds — as they worried it could create a safety hazard. But students can use them in an emergency, officials said, and there are exceptions for students who need devices to monitor medical conditions such as diabetes.

School board members, administrators and the teachers union president said they’ve fielded few complaints from parents or teachers. But as the first semester ends, the district is surveying parents and staff about the new rule.

Both surveys ask participants their views of the policy and seek suggestions on how to improve it. The family survey is on the district’s homepage and was also emailed to parents and will be open until Dec. 21.

“My mom was definitely concerned before school started about safety,” said Mariah Upvall, 17, a senior at Lake Nona High School.

But her mother felt better when she realized Mariah and her younger sister would have their phones in their backpacks if there was an emergency on campus, she said.

After a “rocky start” most Lake Nona students follow the rules now, the teenager said, as few want to deal with the consequences.

Early in the semester “it would be tons of kids and tons of phones” waiting to be reunited after the last bell rang, she said.

But most students got the message, Mariah said. “They remind you, and they remind you, and they remind you.”

Anna Pantano, 18, another Lake Nona senior, said the new rules made some students sneakier, as they go into bathrooms to use phones, for example. They also meant some students, never before in trouble, found themselves in detention for repeat phone violations.

“I think it’s been taken to an extreme this year,” she said.

But the teenager, who said she has not had her phone taken, concedes there have been benefits.

“Kids are most focused ... I definitely get a lot more done throughout the day, I think,” she added. “People are more present in the moment.”

School board member Melissa Byrd was among those who pushed for the ban, noting that some Orange schools that implemented one voluntarily in previous years reported fewer fights and other problems.

As the school year started, she visited all 28 schools in her northwest Orange district.

Students, including her own daughter, an 11th grader, were unhappy with the new rules. But most also said they were getting used to it.

And teachers and administrators reported plenty of positive changes, from fewer fights to more focus in class, Byrd said.

“We really believe it’s what best for kids,” she said.

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