TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School Board moved closer Tuesday to allowing students to use their own Internet devices while at school.
The transformation is gradual, and includes providing wireless access at all schools and training the staff and students in online safety and ethics.
The district is on track to include all schools on a wireless network by April, said deputy superintendent Jeff Eakins.
On Tuesday, board members reviewed their policy on Internet use, including staff responsibility in training and monitoring students.
It's impossible to say how many students, unofficially, are using their smartphones at any time to text message, email or do searches during the school day.
Officially, schools have been allowed to adopt "bring your own device" policies on a limited basis. Nine were chosen in the 2012-13 school year for a pilot program, and surveys showed they were a hit among parents and students.
Plant High School recently expressed interest in allowing the personal devices. District officials are working on an application that will spell out requirements and safeguards.
Proponents say such practices are unavoidable, given the way children and adults commonly access information.
But board members Tuesday continued to ponder the pitfalls.
While the policy requires use of the school district's network with its firewalls and filters, most smartphones and tablets offer easy access to public networks and Wi-Fi.
Board members discussed how to warn parents that their children might be exposed to material they find objectionable.
They wanted to know what is being done in the schools to teach Internet safety.
Plenty, superintendent MaryEllen Elia assured them. Instruction begins in the school media centers, she said.
"Specific classes come into the media center, they're checked off, they have an orientation for the media that is currently in our centers," she said. "There are many teachers that are using it as an opportunity to have students see the importance of being responsible."
As the district moves toward bring-your-own-device policies, passages on "digital citizenry" will be added to the student handbook.
"This is a major shift," Elia said. "We're getting into the 21st century. We're very cognizant that as we do this, it really is an important responsibility that our teachers have and that our students have."
The board and staff acknowledged there are issues they have yet to resolve. They discussed whether students might be allowed to use their devices on the bus or at lunch. They also suggested that, beyond safety, students be instructed in the consequences of posting unflattering material online.
Elia described a conversation with a corporate headhunter who said 60 percent of job applicants are rejected based on simple Internet searches.
"What I publish to the Web is going to follow me for the rest of my life," said board member April Griffin. "These kids, they don't get that. We are, as the adults in their lives, doing them a disservice in not educating them on how this can harm them in the future."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]