Fairfax, Montgomery counties attempt to control phone use in middle schools

Editor’s Note 9/3/19 12:30 p.m.: The story has been updated to clarify that Fairfax County’s measures are guidelines, rather than policy, and provides more details on guidelines for elementary and high school students.

Middle schools in Virginia’s Fairfax County began the year with new policy guidelines that essentially ban the use of personal electronic devices during the school day.

While Montgomery County Public Schools policy dictates phones be kept off and out of sight during school hours, the president of the county’s council of parent-teacher associations says there “is definitely growing support” for further restricting or banning students from having phones with them in the Maryland school system.

Fairfax County’s new middle school guidelines, issued last month by the superintendent’s office reads: “Phones must be silenced and kept put away for the duration of the school day. Storage may be in a locker, backpack, pencil bag, etc. during the day. Teachers may allow cell phone usage in their classrooms at their discretion with support of the administration. Cell phones may be used on campus before the first bell and after the last bell.”

According to the guidance from the office of Superintendent Scott Brabrand: “Some schools may have more prescriptive rules at their school, but these recommended best practices are intended to serve as a consistent minimum set of guidelines.

The Fairfax County guidelines are more restrictive for elementary school students, than middle or high school students, “which recognizes the age ability of students to use their cell phones wisely.”

In elementary schools, the guidelines suggest phones be kept in backpacks all day, while for high school students “Teachers may allow cell phone usage in their classrooms at their discretion, with the support of the administration.”

In Montgomery County, Lynne Harris, president of Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, says the group’s Safe Technology Committee has been thoroughly researching phone use by young people, since the county school system made it possible for elementary school students to bring cellphones to school, with parental approval.

Harris tells WTOP she believes the county’s policy is crystal clear: “Off and away, inside the classroom, unless the teacher instructs the student to take it out and use if for an educational purpose.”

“However, many teachers don’t enforce that policy, many students very much resist the policy, and are openly violating it,” Harris said.

Citing a cellphone ban in San Mateo, California, as well as “some schools in Northern Virginia,” Harris said: “Schools are standing up and saying, ‘you know what, we’re just banning them.'”

Harris said her group hasn’t yet officially pushed for a change in phone policy in Montgomery County schools during the school day, or what grades it might include. “I would say there is definitely growing support for restricting, or even banning phones in the classrooms.”

In informal discussions with school officials, Harris said the school system seems to be focusing on educating parents about discussing appropriate phone usage with their children. However, “I know of parents texting their students during class periods, which is totally inappropriate.”

Anecdotally, Harris said the results in San Mateo have been dramatic. “Students aren’t staring at their phones all day, but actually walking in the halls and talking to other people, and engaging in conversations. I think it’s something MCPS needs to look at.”

A spokesperson for MCPS said the school system isn’t planning to tighten cellphone rules when schools open Tuesday, “but we always welcome the insight and feedback from members of our community.”

WTOP’s Mike Murillo contributed to this report. 

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