‘Beautifully anti-climactic’: How a Fairfax Co. high school addressed cellphone issues before county changed its policy

When students returned to in-person learning at Herndon High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, they were more engrossed in technology than they were before the pandemic, Principal Liz Noto said.

Returning to the classroom, face-to-face, was likely initially uncomfortable for students, she thought. But still, teachers reported students struggled to separate from their phones. They also had difficulty enforcing the school’s cellphone policy, which up until April allowed students to use phones during lunches and between classes and left classroom enforcement up to the teachers’ discretion.

After weeks of considering potential changes to its phone policy, Noto sent a letter to families announcing a ban on cellphone use in the classroom. Cellphone use was at an “all time high,” she wrote. Phones could still be used before and after school, during lunch and for a few minutes during class if a teacher allowed a break. Beyond that, they were required to be away.

The change in approach to cellphone use came weeks before the county’s school board discussed revisions to its Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook, which included rules about when phones and watches are allowed. The board approved the guide, which includes an updated cellphone policy, by an 8-4 vote at a meeting last week.

Now, as is the case at Herndon High, students won’t be able to use phones during class or in bathrooms or locker rooms, beginning next school year.

“When (students) came back from virtual learning, the only difference was (students were sitting in front of teachers), but they were looking at their phones,” Noto said. “It’s disheartening. Maybe not everybody looking at their phone the entire time, but enough that it was becoming difficult for teachers to maintain momentum and learning. The same questions are being asked again and again.”

The high school’s policy has exceptions for students who have a health monitoring device or a documented need, and every student has a computer that can be used for assignments as needed. Some teachers, Noto said, attach a pencil pouch to desks with zip ties, so students can see their phones but can’t access them. Others have students put their phones in socks and leave them on their desks. Students may also be directed to put them in their backpacks.

Regardless, Noto said, reaction to the policy change was “beautifully anti-climactic.” Teachers were satisfied that there was a universal policy, and students followed the new procedures. Before the changes were approved, some school board members expressed concerns that teachers would spend too much time enforcing the “away for the day” policy rather than engaging with course content.

However, that hasn’t proven to be an issue, Noto said, and there hasn’t been any pushback from families.

School board member Elaine Tholen said at a county work session last week that students found classroom discussions more engaging under the new policy.

“Here’s why I think this was even more successful — (students) don’t have anybody to talk to,” Noto said. “Nobody has their phones. So even if you do get access to it, nobody’s responding to you anytime soon, because they don’t have access either.”

Cindy Conley, principal at Irving Middle School in Springfield, said at last week’s school board meeting that the approved ban doesn’t go far enough, because text messages sent in the hallways can have students distracted before entering class.

But for Noto, implementing the change before it was required countywide was a “no-brainer.”

“Teachers just want to teach right now,” Noto said, “and anything we can do to support that work is great.”

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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