Prince William Co. schools to expand restrictions on student cellphone use

WTOP's Dick Uliano speaks with Prince William County public school board chair Babur Lateef on the new phone policy for students

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The Edward L. Kelly Leadership Center serves as the administrative office facility for Prince William County Schools. (Courtesy Prince William County Public Schools)

Prince William County Public Schools intends to expand its restrictions on cellphone usage to all middle and high schools next year.

The undertaking — an expansion of last year’s pilot program restricting phone usage in county schools — comes as Gov. Glenn Youngkin is making “cellphone-free education” a priority for his administration.

Youngkin issued an executive order Tuesday directing the Virginia Department of Education to draft guidance for all of Virginia’s public school divisions to adopt local policies and procedures establishing cellphone-free learning.

Prince William County Public Schools was already planning to expand its “off and away” cellphone program it implemented in most middle schools last year.

School systems across the region have begun implementing similar policies related to smartphones. Loudoun, Fairfax and Stafford counties, along with the city of Fredericksburg, have all adopted some form of a cellphone ban.

Prince William School Board Chair Dr. Babur Lateef told InsideNoVa this week of the school division’s plans to expand the “off and away” program to all middle and high schools.

Although the program is not an official policy passed by the School Board, which is responsible for establishing policy for the school division, Lateef said Superintendent LaTanya McDade has asked all middle and high schools to adopt policies similar to last year’s pilot program.

The initiative would require middle school students to have their cellphones turned off and put away for the entire school day, while high school students would be expected to have their phones away during instructional time.

Lateef said it’s important parents understand their students can’t be on their phones. If parents need to get in touch with their child, they should go through the administrative office of their child’s school, he added.

In the case of an emergency, however, Lateef said students will be allowed to use their phone. “We’re going to use a common-sense approach to this,” he said.

Exceptions to the policy will also be made for students with medical issues or individualized education plans, Lateef said.

Feedback from principals and parents during and after the middle school pilot program last school year was largely positive, according to the School Board chair.

“We have had no pushback from parents at all, and the schools that have done it this past year … the students have been pretty cooperative and it’s worked pretty good,” Lateef said. “We continue to receive reports that students seem to be more focused, there’s less distractions in the classrooms. The hallways are actually louder because people are talking to one another.”

Parents will be notified in August of the policies and procedures for the upcoming year, according to Lateef, who has been vocal in his support for a cellphone ban. Lateef’s comments to InsideNoVa came before Youngkin announced his new statewide policy.

The school division and School Board are looking to hear more feedback as the program expands before potentially setting it as an official policy.

Although the school division already intended to expand its cellphone pilot program, the governor’s executive order requires school systems to have cellphone policies in place by Jan. 1.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the executive order affects the school division’s plans for the fall or whether the School Board will need to set an official policy to meet the mandate.

Meghan Silas, a spokesperson for Prince William County Public Schools, told InsideNoVa the division is reviewing Youngkin’s order, issued Tuesday.

The executive order specifically cites the impact cellphone and social media usage has been proven to have on both education and mental health.

“This essential action will promote a healthier and more focused educational environment where every child is free to learn,” Youngkin said in a news release. “Creating cellphone and social media-free educational environments in Virginia’s K-12 education system will benefit students, parents, and educators.”

Along with the executive order, the governor announced Tuesday the Virginia Department of Education and the Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services will make a combined $500,000 available from existing funds to support implementation of the cellphone initiative.

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