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Gov. Youngkin wants cell phone-free schools in Virginia

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Gov. Youngkin wants cell phone-free schools in Virginia


Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) called for policies restricting cellphone use in schools in an executive order Tuesday, citing rising concerns about the effects of phone usage and social media on youth mental health.

Under the order, the state Education Department will create guidance for school districts to develop policies for a “phone-free” education environment. The goal, the order says, is to limit the amount of time children are on phones “without parental supervision.” The order is not an outright ban on the use of phones in class.

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

The move comes as states around the country increasingly look to restrict cellphone use in schools. Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced his support for restrictions following U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy’s call for tobacco-style warning labels on social media apps to inform users about their deleterious effects on youth 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 class-time use and blocking social media access on campus internet.

The debate over smartphones in schools has been ongoing for years. Educators have long complained about students texting, scrolling and playing games during class, leading some to implement their own classroom bans — having students check in or stow away cellphones. Some schools and districts have also taken approaches using tech products, such as magnetic pouches that can lock students’ devices for the day.

Last fall, a study from the children’s nonprofit group Common Sense Media found that 97 percent of teens used cellphones during the school day. Some researchers see cellphones as contributing to the decline in academic performance and rise in mental health struggles among teens. The stakes are higher now as schools rush to make up for learning lost during the pandemic.

Parents are divided on the issue. Some favor the tighter restrictions, while others say decisions about cellphone usage should be left up to parents, or express concerns about needing to contact students in case of an emergency or school lockdown.

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

“Creating a cell phone-free education environment in public schools is not only a prudent measure but an essential one to promote a healthier and more focused educational environment where every child is free to learn,” the order reads.

The order directs the Education Department to host listening sessions for parent and stakeholder input on what approaches would be best for Virginia. The department will then issue guidance on the best practices and policies that school districts can implement. The Education Department should have final guidance ready in September for districts to start to adopt cellphone policies by Jan. 1. The guidance is not a hard requirement.

Part of the goal of the order, according to the Youngkin administration, is to streamline the efforts that individual teachers, schools or districts have made to limit phone use, by creating guidance and best practices for the state.

Many school districts in Virginia already have rules restricting phone usage, and others are in discussions on how to better enforce or strengthen those policies. The Fairfax County School Board voted in May for the superintendent to develop a pilot program to store cellphones during the school day in the state’s largest district. The superintendent is slated to present the pilot program to the school board this summer.

Last month, the Loudoun County School Board approved a policy restricting the use of cellphones during class time. The policy, which received hundreds of comments from parents, teachers and students, states that phones and ear buds must be silenced and out of reach during class periods unless “a special circumstance exists and there is a documented accommodation.”

In Arlington County, a parent group has been urging the school district to develop a countywide policy requiring students to stow 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 detrimental impacts of personal devices on students’ personal well-being and their opportunity to learn and access the curriculum, the sense of urgency is greater than ever before,” the group wrote in its letter.

This story is developing and will be updated.



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