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States Are Cracking Down on Cellphones in Schools. What That Looks Like

Ohio has joined a small but growing number of states that are cracking down on students’ cellphone use in schools. Once a problem typically dealt with at the district, school, or classroom level, state-level officials are increasingly stepping into the fray.

Florida became the first state to ban cellphones in K-12 classrooms last year. Indiana passed a law in April that will ban cellphones in K-12 classrooms starting next school year. And as many as eight other state legislatures, from Kansas to Vermont, have considered bills that would prohibit students from using cellphones in class this year.

Ohio’s new law, signed by Gov. Mike DeWine May 15, does not go so far as to ban cellphones. But it does require that all districts in the state create policies governing students’ cellphone use in schools that “seeks to minimize students’ use of cellphones,” according to the state education department.

Earlier this year, the Alabama State Board of Education passed a resolution strongly encouraging districts to limit cellphone use in schools. Meanwhile, Utah’s governor said this spring that he would support a ban on cellphones in schools and sent a letter to the state’s board of education detailing his concerns with students’ access to the devices in class.

Even federal lawmakers are taking up the issue, albeit to a lesser extent: Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. and Tim Kaine, D-Va., filed a bill in November that would require a federal study on how cellphone use in schools is affecting students’ academic performance and mental health. (Experts don’t predict that will translate into a federal ban on cellphones in schools because these decisions are typically left up to states or local districts.)

Can state bans on cellphones at school be effective?

Trent Bowers, the superintendent of the Worthington district in the Columbus metro area, said he thinks Ohio’s law strikes the appropriate balance by giving districts final say over what, exactly, their cellphone policies will look like.

“It really does allow for local control. Certainly, our state government has injected what they think should be the case, they’ve made statements that they feel our schools should be cellphone free,” he said, but the law doesn’t necessarily mean big changes for Worthington schools. “The official policy [required by the new law] could codify what we have.”

Currently, Worthington schools’ cellphone policy requires elementary students to keep cellphones in their backpacks and middle schoolers to store their cellphones in their lockers. High school students may keep their phones on them, so long as they obey individual class rules regarding their devices.

These rules aren’t a formal board policy, but they are outlined in the district’s student handbook, Bowers said.

The policy appears to meet the standards of the new Ohio law, but it could still prompt changes from the local school board.

“I think that we need to engage our teachers again and our families before we craft policies, and our board is committed to doing that,” he said. “I don’t know that there will be any change to our practice based on the law. But I think it is an opportunity for us to step back and say, ‘let’s engage anew and see where we end up.’”

Why are cellphones a problem in schools?

Cellphones, and the near-constant source of distractions and drama they can create through 24/7 access to messaging apps, social media, and games, have become a major thorn in the side of educators. Research has found that students get hundreds of notifications on their cellphones a day, often during school hours. And many experts have raised alarms over how cellphone use is hurting kids’ mental health and well-being.

Teachers frequently sound off on how disruptive cellphones are to the classroom in Education Week Research Center surveys, singling them out as the single biggest behavioral-related issue they deal with. Some teachers describe students’ relationships with their cellphones as addictive.

But a counterpoint that surfaces in EdWeek Research Center surveys of teachers, principals, and district leaders, is that it’s schools’ job to teach students healthy cellphone habits.

While some schools have managed to rein in students’ use and leverage cellphones as teaching tools, other schools have struggled—sometimes with situations that sound like they come straight from a teen movie.

In Dothan, Ala., for example, an Instagram gossip account became a cesspool of shaming, name-calling, and rumor-mongering among middle school students until school leaders enacted a cellphone ban.

Schools’ cellphone policies differ by grade level

By 2020, 77 percent of schools had prohibited non-academic use of cellphones during school hours, according to federal data.

A more recent EdWeek Research Center survey from last October found that many high schools allowed cellphone use in certain areas and times on campus, such as lunch, passing periods, in hallways, and outside on school grounds. Fifty percent of schools allow cellphones in the classroom so long as teachers allowed it and 10 percent allowed cellphones in classrooms regardless of whether the teacher wanted it. Only 9 percent of high schools banned cellphones completely on campus.

In Worthington schools, the district places greater restrictions on elementary and middle school cellphone use than on high schoolers, Bowers said, because it found that younger students lack the self-control needed to use their devices responsibly in school.

“Cellphones are the challenge of our day, right? And how we handle cellphones,” said Bowers. “We went through a significant period of time where we very strongly felt like we needed to help kids learn how to utilize these tools appropriately. But a couple of years ago, we shifted at our middle schools and went cellphone free.”

The outcome has been positive, Bowers said, and parents are mostly supportive as long as their students can have a phone on them as they travel to and from school.

Bowers says teachers’ opinions vary about whether students should be allowed to have their cellphones in class. That’s why at the high school level all teachers use a stoplight system. As students walk into each class, a red, yellow, or green dot on display signals whether they are allowed to use cellphones in that day’s class.

Even though his high schoolers didn’t struggle with managing their cellphones as much as the middle schoolers, there are still some older students for whom cellphones remain a challenge, said Bowers.

“Obviously, it works well for a percentage of our students, and it’s a struggle for a different percentage of our students,” he said. “Some students are more drawn to that device and have more trouble separating from it.”

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