Parents react to Youngkin order calling for ‘cellphone-free’ schools

Published 4:42 pm Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order calling for “cellphone-free education” in Virginia’s public schools is drawing mixed reactions from Isle of Wight County parents.

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

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

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Thomas Distefano, whose daughter attends Smithfield High School, said Youngkin’s order brought “mixed emotions,” but “overall, I favor it.”

Distefano said he already restricts the amount of time his children can spend on their phones at home, but has also configured his family’s phones to share their location with one another “for safety purposes,” which to give an accurate reading requires the phone stay on their person throughout the day.

Greg Brown, whose son attends Westside Elementary, said he too is concerned about online bullying and social media use among increasingly younger age groups. Brown said his son has a flip-phone, but not a smartphone.

“It’s a nonpartisan issue; I think lots of people would agree,” Brown said.

Brown, however, questioned the need for an executive order, noting most school divisions, including Isle of Wight, already have policies and procedures in place governing cellphone use, and that the General Assembly had taken up multiple education-related bills during the 2024 session that could have included language regulating the devices.

Educators too say cellphones are becoming a persistent distraction in the classroom. 

“Cellphone use during instructional time is a significant concern at the high school and middle school levels,” said Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs.

Two former teachers, in interviews with The Smithfield Times last year, cited constant cellphone use by students in class among their reasons for leaving their positions with IWCS in 2022 and 2023.

Isle of Wight’s School Board reauthorized a policy in October governing student cellphone use.

A procedure document under Policy IIBEA, which was last revised on Oct. 12, states IWCS currently allows cellphone use within color-coded zones.

Areas designated as green zones, which include cafeterias, common areas and hallways at the high school level, allow largely unrestricted use of cellphones and other electronic devices by students. Areas designated as yellow zones, which include grades 4-12 classrooms and common areas where classes are assembled, allow limited cellphone use at the discretion of a teacher. Cellphones are prohibited in red zones, which include all areas where kindergartners through third-graders are present, all common areas in fourth through eighth grades, and bathrooms and locker rooms in high schools.

“Currently, elementary students are not permitted to use cellphones during the school day, so there are not many issues at that level,” Briggs said. “IWCS will be reviewing current policies and procedures in the next few weeks in hopes to implement any changes to current practice prior to the start of the new school year.  We will certainly communicate any changes to parents, students and employees once revisions are finalized.”

“As a parent of a recent graduate from IWCS, I personally have seen cellphones become an issue with students since they relaxed the usage in 2020,” said Heidi Swartz, whose son graduated in June from Smithfield High School. “Once children were given an inch, they took a mile. Having some areas of the schools where usage is allowed and other classrooms not made it confusing as a parent on when your student was given permission.”

Julie Hess, the mother of several children, including a rising eighth-grader at Smithfield Middle School, said she doesn’t allow any of her children to take their phones to school. She praised Youngkin’s effort to excise the devices from classrooms and said she’d like to see less reliance by teachers on computer-based assignments as well.

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

Surry County Public Schools has its own policy designated IIBEA, which governs technology use by students and staff. Like Isle of Wight’s, it prohibits the use of TikTok, WeChat or any website developed by Chinese-owned ByteDance Ltd. or Tencent Holdings Ltd. on a device owned or leased by the division, including cellphones, though Surry’s version doesn’t include an exhibit specifically addressing student-owned phones.

“Surry County Public Schools has cellphone procedures in place at all three of our schools,” said Airon Grim, director of assessment, career readiness and instructional technology for SCPS. “Cellphones are prohibited for elementary students, and middle school students must turn off their cellphones and store them away in their lockers upon entering the school building. At our high school, students must turn off their cellphones and store them out of sight during instructional time.”

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

Youngkin, in a news release, said his order “establishes the clear goal to protect the health and safety of our students by limiting the amount of time they are exposed to addictive cellphones and social media and eliminates clear distractions in the classroom.”

According to American Psychological Association data cited in Youngkin’s order, American teens spend 4.8 hours per day using YouTube, TikTok and other popular social media apps on cellphones, with 10% of the highest users expressing suicidal or self-harm intent over the past 12 months as of April 1 of this year.

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 uptick of the 50 states. Virginia Department of Health data from 2022 shows emergency department visits among Virginians ages 9-18 for suicidal thoughts, self harm or suicide attempts more than doubled from 6,520 visits in 2016 to 14,298 in 2021.