Governor Youngkin Wants Cell Phone-Free Schools in Virginia

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) issued an executive order Tuesday calling for policies to limit cell phone use in schools, citing growing concerns about the effects of cell phone use and social media on young people’s mental health.

Under the order, the Department of Education will establish guidelines for school districts to develop policies for a “phone-free” educational environment. The goal, the order says, is to limit the amount of time children spend on phones “without parental supervision.” The order is not an outright ban on the use of phones in the classroom.

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

The move comes as states across the country are increasingly seeking to restrict cellphone use in schools. Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced his support for restrictions after U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy called for tobacco-style warning labels on social media apps to inform users about the harmful effects of tobacco on young people’s mental health.

Other states have taken similar steps. Indiana passed a bill this year that requires school districts to adopt policies banning wireless devices during class, and last year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed the most restrictive school smartphone law in the country, banning smartphone use during class and blocking access to internet social media on campus.

The debate over smartphones in schools has been going on for years. Educators have long complained about students texting, scrolling and playing games during class, leading some to implement their own classroom bans: students must check in or put away their phones. Some schools and districts have also used tech products like magnetic cases that lock students’ devices all day.

Last fall, a study by the children’s nonprofit Common Sense Media found that 97 percent of teens used cellphones during the school day. Some researchers have blamed cellphones for declining academic performance and rising mental health issues among teens. The stakes have been raised as schools scramble to make up for learning lost during the pandemic.

Parents are divided on the issue, with some advocating stricter restrictions, while others say decisions about cell phone use should be left to parents, or worry about the need to contact students in the event of an emergency or school closure.

Education is a major focus for Youngkin, who ran for office on a message of “parental rights.” The Virginia order is twofold in its reasoning. Curbing excessive screen time, the state argues, will both benefit students’ mental health and remove distractions in the classroom to encourage learning.

“Creating a mobile phone-free learning environment in public schools is not only a sensible measure, but also an essential measure to promote a healthier and more focused learning environment in which every child is free to learn,” the regulation said.

The order directs the Department of Education to hold listening sessions for input from parents and stakeholders on what approaches would be best for Virginia. The department will then issue guidance on best practices and policies that school districts can implement. The Department of Education is expected to have final guidance ready by September, so that districts can implement cellphone policies beginning Jan. 1. The guidance is not a hard requirement.

Sen. Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), a public school teacher, praised the approach, which allows the state to gather feedback on the issue and then issue guidelines for school districts to find what works for them.

“It’s all really come to a head, and that’s why I think you’re seeing bipartisan support to do something,” VanValkenburg said. “Because [smartphones] are a problem. They are a problem in the classroom, and something needs to be done about it.”

Part of the goal of the measure, according to the Youngkin administration, is to streamline efforts by individual teachers, schools and districts to limit phone use by creating guidelines and best practices for the state.

Many Virginia school districts already have policies that limit cell phone use, and others are discussing how to better enforce or strengthen such policies. The Fairfax County School Board voted in May to direct the superintendent to develop a pilot program to store cellphones during the school day in the state’s largest district. The superintendent will present the pilot program to the school board this summer.

David Walrod, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said in an interview that schools in Fairfax vary in their level of enforcement of cellphone policies. He said the statewide guideline could be helpful in bringing consistency across the district.

As a parent of a rising seventh grader, Walrod said he understands the need for stricter restrictions. While phones can be a powerful tool for learning when used properly, he said it’s easy for the devices to become distracting.

“I think anything we can do to move our kids in the direction we want them to go is going to be helpful,” Walrod said. “I don’t necessarily agree with Governor Youngkin on a lot of things, but I’m not opposed to this.”

Last month, the Loudoun County School Board approved a policy limiting cell phone use during class. The policy, which drew hundreds of comments from parents, teachers and students, states that phones and earbuds must be turned off and out of reach during class time unless “a special circumstance exists and a documented accommodation is available.”

In Arlington County, a parent group has called on the school district to develop a countywide policy requiring students to lock their phones in lockers during the day. In a letter to the superintendent, Arlington Parents for Education argued that the policy would be the best way to curb the effects of cellphones.

“Now that we know the damaging effects of personal devices on students’ personal well-being and their ability to learn and access the curriculum, the sense of urgency is greater than ever,” the group wrote in its letter.

Amy Rzepka, a parent of a high school student and board member of Arlington Parents for Education, said in an interview that she would like to see the state’s guidelines and what policies the school district would come up with. She supports limiting phone use throughout the school day, not just during lessons.

“Given the proven negative impact of phones on students’ mental health and academic performance, I am very encouraged to see Virginia address this issue statewide,” she said.

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