School Lacks Uniform Policy for Phone Use in Classrooms

by Ben Schoenberg ’24

Following the return to schools after the pandemic, teachers across the country have seen a troubling rise in phone use during class time. According to a recent Washington Post article, this has led many schools nationwide to implement measures that would regulate or ban mobile devices in the classroom. However, Sherwood has not taken a school-wide approach to stop students from having their phones during class time.
While phone use in classes has always been an issue for teachers since mobile devices were first popularized, many schools noticed that there was significant increase in phone use over the past two years. “I do believe that there is an increased use since online learning, but it is hard to say if this is because the apps–such as TikTok–are more addicting, or if students had unregulated phone use for over a year during the time they were in class virtually. Or potentially a mixture of both,” said math teacher Ingrid Ramirez-Fallabout.
Today’s digital world creates many new accessible ways to learn such as MCPS schools providing devices like chromebooks to students. But it has also led to new apps and social media platforms that only act to further distract and engage students when they should be focused and learning in class.
“Apps on phones are programmed to keep students addicted to them, and unfortunately no instruction will be able to compete with these algorithms that keep phone users paying attention to their phones,” added Ramirez-Fallabout. “Chromebooks can be used for any electronic educational needs, and don’t have pop-ups, so they are much less addicting.”
Social studies teacher Michelle Games thinks it is okay if a teacher finishes a few minutes early and wants to allow their students to access their phones. However, she has noticed that availability of phones has stopped students from socializing with each other. “It makes me sad because I remember before we had cell phones and the kids would talk to each other at the end of class instead of staring at their phones,” she explained. “They would make new friends and have conversations. Now, they just whip out the phone and stare at it. Living in a virtual world.”
The recent uptick in phone use has begun to become such an ongoing distraction for many teachers that they believe the issue needs to be addressed, whether through school wide or countywide regulations. According to the MCPS Personal Mobile Device regulation policy that was last revised May 2, 2022, phone rules in high schools are left up to the principal’s discretion, meaning that there is no official regulation that restricts phone use across the county. This is in direct contrast to how the district policy regulates middle schools, which prohibits use during class. At Farquhar Middle School, for example, students put their phones in their lockers before classes start.
Sherwood’s administration decided that for the 2022-2023 school year each department would determine its own policies for phones in the classroom. Such an approach has led to inconsistencies and a lack of clarity about expectations for phone use, which results in enforcement being difficult. An additional challenge is that teachers are not allowed to confiscate a student’s phone, according to Principal Timothy Britton.
“In a perfect world, MCPS would create and publish a clear policy on cell phone use in schools,” said Lynnette Evans-Williams, who is the head of the English department. “At minimum, we would have a school-wide policy that could be consistently implemented. I also believe parents and guardians need to talk to their teens about appropriate use of phones during school.” In her own classes, Evans-Williams finds that she has to prompt students to  keep their phones put away during instruction.
Neighboring high school, Blake, dedicated a section of its 2022-2023 Student Agenda to their policy regarding Personal Mobile Devices. The policy states that students may not use their mobile devices at all during class, with verbal warnings and occasionally confiscating phones used to uphold the policy.
“I think Sherwood needs a strict cell phone policy.  Other MCPS schools have such policies so I don’t know why we don’t,” said Games, who also believes it is important to stop students from using their phones during school not only for improved academics but also for the students’ overall well being.
  “I would like to see a rule that phones cannot be out in the classroom,” Games continued. “There should be a sequence of consequences starting with the teacher taking the phone for the period and escalating to security picking up the phone and keeping it for the day. This is not only an instructional issue it is a mental health issue. We talk about mental health but don’t address the harm of phones and social media for kids — look at the new guidance from the surgeon general.  Social media is a leading cause of mental health problems in kids. It is literally addictive, as the Psychology teachers will tell you.”