El­e­men­tary and mid­dle schools are grap­pling with how to set poli­cies.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Donna St. Ge­orge

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 por­ta­ble 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 school. “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 OK — 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,” 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 re­cently found that 40 per­cent of third-graders sur­veyed in five states had a cell­phone, a num­ber that dou­bled from 2013 to 2017. 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 Wash­ing­ton, D.C., re­gion, rules of­ten vary by school.

In Fair­fax County, Vir­ginia, some mid­dle schools al­low cell­phones dur­ing lunch, and some don’t. In Prince Ge­orge’s, Mary­land, they are al­lowed with prin­ci­pal ap­proval. In the District, pub-

lic schools also de­velop cell­phone poli­cies at the school level. At least one mid­dle school 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.”

But some par­ents voice con­cern that the end of a re­quire­ment to get a waiver will mean more de­vices in el­e­men­tary school. Chil­dren are not al­lowed to use phones dur­ing school hours, un­less a teacher blends them into in­struc­tion. They may use them af­ter dis­missal and on school buses un­der the new rules.

A re­cent re­port by Com­mon Sense Me­dia, a non­profit group that helps fam­i­lies nav­i­gate is­sues re­lated to me­dia and tech­nol­ogy, showed mo­bile screen time on the rise for chil­dren 8 and younger.

Na­tion­ally, as more phones have gone to school in the past decade, ed­u­ca­tors have turned their fo­cus from the mere fact of hav­ing a de­vice to any inappropriate be­hav­ior, said Ann Flynn, of the Na­tional School Boards As­so­ci­a­tion.

As mid­dle schools con­sider the is­sue, many par­ents worry about the broader phe­nom­e­non of screen time. They say stu­dents need faceto-face con­tact to de­velop so­cial skills, ex­pand friend­ships and learn to nav­i­gate un­com­fort­able sit­u­a­tions; they don’t need an­other place where phones take over their at­ten­tion.

Jus­tus Swan, a six­th­grader, said he is in no hurry to bring cell­phones into the day’s largest stretch of free time. Lunch is about so­cial­iz­ing, he said, and with phones in hand, stu­dents would be less tuned in to con­ver­sa­tion.

“It de­feats the point,” the 11-year-old said.

But the phone-friendly lunch has sup­port­ers.

Matthew Post, the stu­dent mem­ber of Takoma Park Mid­dle School’s school board, said that he backs a school-by-school ap­proach but that phone priv­i­leges at lunch would give stu­dents the chance to learn about re­spon­si­ble use and get ready for the world beyond mid­dle school. As he has vis­ited schools, he said, he has found the lunches where phones are al­lowed no less so­cial. “There was the same chat­ter and bus­tle that I saw in ev­ery mid­dle school lunch,” he said.

West­land Prin­ci­pal Ali­son Serino said a sur­vey showed that stu­dents over­whelm­ingly fa­vored the idea — but that par­ents over­whelm­ingly did not. As a mid­dle ground, Serino has al­lowed cell­phones at Fri­day lunches this year, un­der ground rules: No Snapchat or In­sta­gram. No vi­o­lent games or tak­ing photos or videos. Ear buds for play­ing mu­sic.

It means an­other 30 min­utes of screen time in a week, Serino ac­knowl­edged, but she has found that stu­dents are still so­cial at lunch. “I’m see­ing the vast ma­jor­ity of kids are still in­ter­act­ing with each other,” she said.

At a mid­dle school in Silver Spring, Mary­land, Prin­ci­pal Ni­cole Sosik al­lows cell­phones at lunch five days a week but says she’s made clear the priv­i­lege will end if stu­dents are not re­spon­si­ble. Those who lack phones may use the school’s Chrome- book lap­tops at lunch.

It’s a change from the past, she said, when “a lot of time was spent mon­i­tor­ing elec­tronic de­vices and con­fis­cat­ing them.”

In re­cent years, stu­dents in some Mont­gomery class­rooms also have used phones as part of learn­ing, un­der “bring your own de­vice” ini­tia­tives.


Jack Doyle, 13 (from left); Ryan Ward, 14; Ai­den Franz, 13; and Gray Rager, 14, use their cell­phones dur­ing lunch at West­land Mid­dle School in Bethesda, Md.

Stu­dents are al­lowed to use their cell­phones dur­ing one lunch a week at West­land Mid­dle School.

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