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14 November 2017

Schools and Cellphones: In Elementary Schools? At Lunch?

Schools and cellphones: In elementary schools? At lunch?
by Donna St. George
The Washington Post, 
13 November 2017

(Photo): From left, Jack Doyle, 13, Ryan Ward, 14, Aiden Franz, 13, and Gray Rager, 14, use their cell phones during lunch at Westland Middle School in Bethesda, Md., on Nov. 2. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

It’s been a long time since mobile phones arrived in the nation’s schools, but educators are still grappling with what to do about them.

Should they be allowed in elementary schools? What about middle-schoolers using them at lunch? Which limits make the most sense for devices so ubiquitous?

What has become a more settled matter for high school students is sparking questions and controversy in lower grades, some two decades after mobile phones became an inescapable part of the cultural landscape.

The debate has emerged in Maryland’s biggest school system — in suburban Montgomery County — where some of the rules have been relaxed in recent months.

It used to be that students through fifth grade could carry cellphones only with special permission. But over the years, an increasing number of parents wanted their elementary-age children to take phones to school, often believing kids would be safer — walking home or in an emergency — with the device at the ready.

As the Maryland district recently moved to do away with the old rule, other parents objected — shocked that children as young as 6 or 7 would be permitted to bring smartphones to school. One father recalled his child’s school banning fidget spinners and Pokémon cards. Why allow cellphones?

“A phone would be more of a distraction,” said Art Bennett, who has three children in Montgomery schools. “Unless there’s a demonstrated need, I don’t see why there ought to be phones in elementary school at all.”

The change in district rules, which took effect this fall, also allows middle school students to use cellphones during lunch if principals give the okay — an idea that has conjured images of children bent over phones in the cafeteria and left parents, already worried about the hours their children spend on screens, dismayed.

“We all know the phone is a blessing and a curse,” said Lisa Cline, co-chair of a safe technology subcommittee of the countywide council of PTAs. “I don’t see why we want to make these children into little adults.”

While there is little national data on how school systems handle such issues, it appears that approaches vary widely. Some schools ban smartphones, while others allow them in hallways or during lunch periods, or actively incorporate them into instruction .

“I really don’t see a consensus,” said Elizabeth Englander, a professor at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. “Nobody really knows what to do. I think everybody’s trying out different things and seeing how they work.”

Englander said that a survey of third-graders in five states found that 40 percent had a cellphone in 2017, twice as many as in 2013. Among the third-graders who had a phone, more than 80 percent said they brought them to school daily, according to a preliminary analysis.

In the D.C. region, rules often vary by school.

In Fairfax County, some middle schools allow cellphones during lunch, and some don’t. In Prince George’s, they are allowed with principal approval. In the District, public schools also develop cellphone policies at the school level. At least one middle school — Hart — gives phones back to students at lunch.

In Montgomery, school system officials say they are changing with the times, in an increasingly digital world where more parents buy their children phones and more children tuck them into backpacks, pockets and lockers. Students in all grades are responsible for using them appropriately.

“Five or 10 years ago, many elementary school students didn’t have cellphones,” said Pete Cevenini, chief technology officer for the school system. “Now, many of them do.”

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