Cell phones — the ultimate distraction — keep kids from learning, educators say. But in efforts to keep the phones at bay, the most vocal pushback doesn’t always come from students. In some cases it is from parents.
Bans on the devices were on the rise before the COVID-19 pandemic. Struggles with student behavior and mental health since schools reopened have given some schools even more reason to restrict access.
But parents and caregivers who had constant access to their children during distance learning were reluctant to give that up. Some fear losing contact with their children during a school shooting.
Shannon Moser, who has students in eighth and ninth grades in Rochester, New York, said she felt parents were being pushed away when Greece’s central school district began shutting down students’ phones this year. There is a form of accountability, she said, when students are able to record what is happening around them.
“Everything is so politicized, so divisive. And I think parents just have a general fear of what happens to their kids during the day,” Moser said. She said she has liberal views in general, but many parents on both sides of the political divide feel the same way.
Amid heightened scrutiny of topics such as race and inclusionsome parents also see cell phone restrictions as a way to keep them out of their children’s education.
More than a decade ago, about 90% of public schools banned cell phone use, but that shrank to 65% in the 2015-2016 school year. By the 2019-2020 school year, there were bans in 76% of schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. California and Tennessee recently passed laws allowing schools to ban phones.
Now educators in particular are seeing the need to keep students employed to recover from pandemic shutdowns, when many students lost the equivalent of months of apprenticeship.
And many school officials may feel empowered to ban the devices given growing concerns among parents about screen time in the pandemic era, said Liz Keren-Kolb, a clinical associate professor of educational technologies at the University of Michigan. But she said parental views on the debate run across the spectrum.
“You still have the parents who want to have that direct line of communication and are concerned that their child can’t have that communication,” she said. “But I think there’s more empathy and understanding for their child to be able to put their device away so they can really focus on learning in the classroom and want that in-person experience.”
The Washington School District in western Pennsylvania introduced a ban this year as educators increasingly found cell phones an obstacle. Students were on their cell phones in the hallways and at the cafeteria tables. Some would call home or answer phone calls in the middle of a class, said high school English teacher Treg Campbell.
The inspector, George Lammay, said the ban was the right thing to do.
“We want to increase children’s engagement and academic progress — not try to limit their contact with families. That’s not the point,” he said.
In some cases, parental pushback has led to policy changes.
In Colorado’s Brush School District, cell phones were banned after teachers raised concerns about online bullying. When parents cast their votes, the district held a community meeting that lasted more than two hours, with most of the testimonies against the ban. The biggest takeaway, Chief Superintendent Bill Wilson said, was that parents wanted their kids to have access to their phones.
The policy has been adjusted to allow mobile phones on campus, but out and out of sight. The district also said it would house a handful of students with unique circumstances.
“It’s not about saying cell phones are bad,” Wilson said. “It’s a reset to say, ‘How do we sort this out in a way that makes sense to everyone?'”
In the Richardson Independent School District, near Dallas, the use of cell phones by students was banned during class hours before officials suggested buying magnetic pouches to seal them during the school day. Feedback from parents about the cost of the sachets and emergency safety concerns led to a scaled back plan to test the sachets at one of the district’s eight high schools, Forest Meadow Junior High.
“We used to get in touch with our kids whenever we wanted to,” said Louise Boll, president of the Forest Meadow parent-teacher association. “There was a lot of resistance in the beginning and a lot of concern about what this would look like, how this would go, how will it contact us to get in touch?”
Children and their parents have largely adapted to the new policy, she said.
In online discussions of parent activists, there are numerous defenders of cell phone bans. However, some others have spoken out against such bans as attempts to prevent parents from seeing “violence” and “indoctrination” in schools.
Legal action by parents remains rare, the only exception being a failed lawsuit by several parents against New York City’s school cell phone ban in 2006, which was eventually disbanded in 2015. Still, petitions against the ban on cell phones in schools have increased this year on Change.org, a spokesperson said.
There’s no perfect formula for cellphones in schools, Kolb said, who said the pendulum will likely swing away from bans depending on how attitudes toward technology in schools change.
“It really comes down to making sure we educate students and parents about healthy habits with their digital devices,” she said.
Brooke Schultz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national, not-for-profit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on classified issues.
Associated Press writer Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York, contributed to this report.