(AP) — As a growing number of schools seek to limit student access to cellphones, many are turning parents away. They want to be able to connect with their children at any time. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, device bans were increasing. Since schools reopened, behavioral and mental health concerns for students have given some schools even more reason to restrict access. But parents and caregivers who had constant access to their children during distance learning do not want to give it up. Some fear losing touch with their children during a school shooting. In some cases, parental refusal has led to policy changes.
Educators say cell phones — a major distraction — are preventing children from learning. But in efforts to keep phones at bay, the loudest pushback doesn’t always come from students. In some cases, it is from the parents.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, device bans were increasing. Since schools reopened, behavioral and mental health concerns for students have given some schools even more reason to restrict access.
But parents and caregivers who had constant access to their children during distance learning do not want to give it up. Some fear losing touch with their children during a school shooting.
Shannon Moser, who has eighth- and ninth-grade students in Rochester, N.Y., said she felt parents were pushed back when the Greece Central School District began blocking student phones this year. There is a form of accountability, she said, where students can record what is happening around them.
“Everything is so politicized, so divided. And I think parents are just afraid of what happens to their kids during the day,” Moser said. She said she generally has liberal views, but many parents on both sides of the political divide feel the same way.
Amid increased attention to topics such as race and integration, some 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 the use of cell phones, but in the 2015-2016 school year, that number dropped to 65%. By the 2019-2020 academic year, bans were in effect in 76% of schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. California and Tennessee recently passed laws allowing schools to ban phones.
Now, in particular, teachers are seeing the need to keep students on task to recover from pandemic shutdowns, when many students lost the equivalent of months of instruction.
And many school officials may feel empowered to ban the devices given growing parental concerns about the pandemic’s screen time, said Liz Keren-Kolb, clinical assistant professor of educational technology at the University of Michigan. But she said that parents’ views on the debate are very different.
“You still have parents who want to have that direct connection and are concerned that their child won’t be able to have that connection,” she said. “But I really think there’s more compassion and understanding that their child can 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 instituted the ban this year as teachers increasingly viewed cellphones as a distraction. In the hallways and at tables in the cafeteria, students were talking on cell phones. Some called home or answered calls in the middle of class, said middle school English teacher Treg Campbell.
Superintendent George Lammai said the ban was the right choice.
“We aim to increase children’s engagement and success, not try to limit their contact with their families. It’s not about that,” he said.
In some cases, parental refusal has led to policy adjustments.
The Brush School District in Colorado has banned cellphones after teachers raised concerns about cyberbullying. When parents spoke out, the district held a public meeting that lasted more than two hours, and most of the testimony came against the ban. Superintendent Bill Wilson said the biggest takeaway was that parents wanted their kids to have access to their phones.
The policy has been adjusted to allow cell phones on campus, although they must be turned off and out of sight. The district also said it will accept several students with unique circumstances.
“We have no intention of saying that cell phones are evil,” Wilson said. “It’s a reset to say, ‘How do we deal with this in a way that makes sense for everybody?'”
In the Richardson Independent School District, near Dallas, cell phone use by students was banned during school hours before officials proposed purchasing magnetic pouches to seal them during the school day. Feedback from parents about the cost of the bags and concerns about emergency safety led to the curtailment of a plan to pilot the bags at one of the district’s eight high schools, Forest Meadows.
“We used to have contact with our kids when we wanted to,” said Louise Ball, president of the Forest Meadow Parent-Teacher Association. “There was a lot of pushback and a lot of worry in the beginning about what was this going to look like, how was it going to unfold, how was it going to affect us connecting?”
Children and their parents have largely adapted to the new policy, she said.
There are many advocates of cell phone bans in parenting activists’ online discussions. Some others, however, oppose the bans as an effort to deter parents from “violence” and “ideological training” in schools.
Lawsuits by parents remain rare, with one exception – an unsuccessful lawsuit by several parents against a school cell phone ban in New York City in 2006, which was eventually overturned in 2015. However, the number of petitions against school cell phone bans communications has increased on Change.org this year, the spokesperson said.
There is no perfect formula for cellphones in schools, said Kolb, who said the pendulum will likely swing toward bans depending on how attitudes toward technology in schools change.
“It really comes down to us educating students and parents about healthy habits with their digital devices,” she said.
Brooke Schultz is an Associated Press/Reporting staff member for the US Government News Initiative. Reporting for America is a nonprofit national outreach program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported issues.
Associated Press writer Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York contributed to this report.
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