Parents respond to Youngkin’s order calling for ‘cell phone-free’ schools – Smithfield Times
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Parents respond to Youngkin’s order calling for ‘cell phone-free’ schools – Smithfield Times

Parents respond to Youngkin’s order calling for ‘cell phone-free’ schools

Posted 16:42 on Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order calling for “cell phone-free education” in Virginia public schools has been met with mixed reactions from Isle of Wight County parents.

Youngkin’s July 9 executive order, which blames cellphones for a rise in mental health crises among teens statewide, directs several members of his cabinet, including Education Secretary Aimee Rogstad Guidera, to develop model policies to limit cellphone use in schools. The model policies are to be posted on the Virginia Department of Education website for feedback from parents, students, teachers and other stakeholders by Aug. 15.

The VDOE is scheduled to issue final guidance by Sept. 16, and all school boards must adopt new policies and procedures by Jan. 1.

Thomas Distefano, whose daughter attends Smithfield High School, said Youngkin’s order elicited “mixed feelings” but “overall, I’m in favor.”

Distefano said he already limits the amount of time his children can spend on their phones at home, but he has also set up family members’ phones to share their location with each other “for security reasons,” which requires the phone to be with them at all times of the day to get an accurate reading.

Greg Brown, whose son attends Westside Elementary, said he, too, is concerned about online bullying and the use of social media at younger ages. Brown said his son has a flip phone but not a smartphone.

“It’s a nonpartisan issue. I think a lot of people would agree with that,” Brown said.

Brown, however, questioned the need for an executive order, noting that most education departments, including Isle of Wight’s, already have policies and procedures in place to regulate cellphone use, and the General Assembly has taken up multiple education-related bills during its 2024 session that could include provisions to regulate the use of the devices.

Teachers also say cell phones are becoming an increasingly distracting element in the classroom.

“The use of mobile phones during school hours is a serious issue in secondary and middle schools,” said Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs.

Two former teachers told The Smithfield Times last year that their reasons for resigning from IWCS in 2022 and 2023 included students’ constant use of cellphones during lessons.

In October, the Isle of Wight school board re-approved its policy on student mobile phone use.

The IIBEA Policy Procedure Document, last amended on 12 October, states that the IWCS currently permits the use of mobile phones in colour-coded zones.

Areas designated as green zones, which include cafeterias, common areas, and hallways in high schools, allow students to have largely unrestricted use of cell phones and other electronic devices. Areas designated as yellow zones, which include grades 4-12 and common areas where classes gather, allow limited use of cell phones at the discretion of the teacher. Cell phones are prohibited in red zones, which include all areas where students from kindergarten through third grade meet, all common areas in grades four through eight, and bathrooms and locker rooms in high schools.

“Currently, elementary school students are not allowed to use cell phones during the school day, so there are not many issues at that level,” Briggs said. “IWCS will be reviewing current policies and procedures over the next few weeks with the hopes of implementing any changes to current practices before the start of the new school year. We will be sure to notify parents, students and staff of any changes as soon as the changes are finalized.”

“As a parent of a recent IWCS graduate, I have seen firsthand how cellphones have become an issue for students since cellphone use was relaxed in 2020,” said Heidi Swartz, whose son graduated from Smithfield High School in June.When kids were given an inch, they took a mile. Having some areas of the schools where it was allowed and other classrooms where it wasn’t allowed made it difficult as a parent to determine when a student had been given permission.”

Julie Hess, a mother of several children, including an eighth-grader at Smithfield Middle School, said she doesn’t let any of her children take their phones to school. She praised Youngkin’s efforts to remove devices from classrooms and said she wishes teachers would also rely less on computer assignments.

“I think we need to go back to pencil and paper,” Hess said.

Surry County Public Schools has its own policy, known as the IIBEA, that governs technology use by students and staff. Like Isle of Wight, it prohibits the use of TikTok, WeChat or any site developed by China’s ByteDance Ltd. or Tencent Holdings Ltd. on a device owned or leased by the department, including cellphones, though Surry’s version does not include an exhibit specifically referring to student-owned phones.

“Surry County Public Schools has cell phone procedures in place at all three of our schools,” said Airon Grim, SCPS director of assessment, career readiness, and instructional technology. “Cell phones are prohibited for elementary students, and middle school students are required to turn off their cell phones and put them in their lockers upon entering the school building. At our high school, students are required to turn off their cell phones and put them out of sight during instructional time.”

“Surry County Public Schools is committed to ensuring that our policies and procedures are in compliance with all state mandates and executive orders,” Grim said. “In response to the recent executive order issued by the Governor, we are currently seeking detailed guidance from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) to outline specific actions required for compliance.”

Youngkin said in a news release that his order “establishes a clear goal of protecting the health and safety of our students by limiting the time they are exposed to addictive cell phones and social media, as well as eliminating obvious distractions in the classroom.”

According to data from the American Psychological Association cited in Youngkin’s order, American teenagers spend 4.8 hours a day using YouTube, TikTok and other popular social media apps on their mobile phones, with the top 10% of users reporting suicidal or self-harming intentions in the past 12 months as of April 1.

According to a 2020 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Vital Statistics System, suicides among Virginians ages 10-24 increased 58.6% from 2007 to 2018. Virginia had the 32nd highest increase among the 50 states. 2022 data from the Virginia Department of Health show that emergency department visits among Virginians ages 9-18 due to suicidal ideation, self-harm or attempted suicide more than doubled from 6,520 visits in 2016 to 14,298 in 2021.