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Pasco County bans cell phones in elementary school classrooms

The school board also approved new rules for devices in middle and high schools, but they are less restrictive.
 
The Pasco County School Board has banned cell phone use in elementary school classrooms, saying teachers should have their students' undivided attention, as in this drama exercise supervised by Longleaf Elementary theater teacher Ryan Bintz in 2021.
The Pasco County School Board has banned cell phone use in elementary school classrooms, saying teachers should have their students' undivided attention, as in this drama exercise supervised by Longleaf Elementary theater teacher Ryan Bintz in 2021. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published June 21, 2023

Citing concerns over mental health and misbehavior, the Pasco County School Board has banned the use of cell phones in elementary classrooms.

The newly adopted policy, which takes effect immediately, requires elementary students to keep any personal wireless communication devices — including wireless earphones and smart watches — on silent mode and out of sight for the entire school day.

The board, which approved the measure Tuesday night, was slightly more lenient with other grade levels.

Middle school students may use their phones in classes with teacher permission for a specific lesson, and during lunch period. High schools have the same rules, but also will allow for use between class periods.

“I wanted the scorched earth approach, no cell phones anywhere in prekindergarten through 12th grade,” superintendent Kurt Browning said. “We took public input and we settled where we have.”

The board deleted proposed language from the rule that would have encouraged students to leave all devices at home.

Board member Colleen Beaudoin led the charge for keeping that provision out, arguing that students need to learn to manage life with technology in it. She also noted that parents rely on their ability to communicate with their children for a variety of reasons, including safety and daily transportation.

“I think this is an infringement on parental rights and choices,” Beaudoin said, winning support to remove the wording.

The new rule comes shortly after state lawmakers passed legislation placing limitations on social media accessibility on school devices and networks, and restricting phone use in classrooms to educational uses approved by teachers.

The rationale at the state and local level hinged on concerns that children’s mental health has declined as they have had increasing access to phones and social media.

Phones have distracted students from paying attention in class, and from interacting with their peers and teachers. Some students also have used their phones to do “stupid things” such as posting false threats as jokes, disrupting needed instructional time, Browning said.

Beaudoin pushed back against the elementary school prohibition, suggesting that teachers should have the ability to allow their students to use personal devices for course work just as middle and high school teachers may.

The school district relies heavily on online functions, such as checking assignments through a portal, while not having enough district-owned devices for every student to use, she noted. The possibility to use personal devices — supported by the district for nearly 15 years — should remain for those reasons, she said.

Tom Barker, an assistant superintendent for elementary schools, countered that discussions with principals revealed that most K-5 teachers do not ask their students to use phones in class, so allowing it would be unnecessary.

“My concern is how teachers may interpret this,” Beaudoin responded. “I think we should be treating our teachers as the professionals that they are. ... I trust that our teachers are going to make the right decisions.”

Board Chairperson Megan Harding, formerly a third-grade teacher, agreed to a point. She said the district should equip elementary classrooms with adequate numbers of devices to use for lessons.

But “we really can’t be relying on students using their own personal devices when they’re at school,” Harding said.

The board eventually adopted the rule unanimously. Browning said he would instruct all school leaders to back up teachers as they enforce it.

He cautioned that more restrictions are likely to follow.

“I am not certain that we’ve seen the last legislation concerning cell phones,” he said, referring to information he learned at a recent statewide school security summit with lawmakers. “And you thought my recommendation was bad.”

In related action, the board adopted new a dress code requirement that all shirts extend to a student’s waist. Beaudoin opposed the rule, saying teachers and principals will be spending enough time enforcing the new cell phone policy.

“Dress code is not a barrier to education,” she said. “This board needs to focus on what impacts education.”

The other board members argued the district must set guidelines to stop the “anything goes” mentality that some students have adopted.

“There ought to be a distinction between what you wear to the beach … and what you wear to school to do serious learning,” board member Cynthia Armstrong said.

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