Schools enforcing rules to keep students focused in class, off social media

Since cell phones were banned in class at Concord High School at the start of the year, 11th grader Skyler Hubbard says she has been able to focus better.

After a tough stretch of remote learning when students could easily escape the gaze of their teachers or simply turn off the Zoom camera and have unfettered access to their phones, being back in person has been an adjustment.

Hubbard said the simple act of moving her phone from its tempting spot on the desk into the backpack where it’s out of sight, has made a world of difference.

“I feel like I’m paying more attention to what my teachers are saying and stuff, as opposed to just playing games on my phone,” Hubbard said.

Concord High School started out the school year with a strong rule – at the start of classes, all cell phones are to be turned off and put away out of sight in backpacks. Students are welcome to use their phones when they’re not in class – during passing time, lunch or study halls – but when they’re in class they must be distraction-free. It’s not a new policy, but Reardon said they’re placing a concerted effort on making sure the policy is enforced equally in every classroom.

Concord isn’t alone trying to get a handle on teen phone use. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 35% of teens say they are using social media on their phones “almost always,” whether that is TikTok, Youtube, Instagram or Snapchat.

Teens are aware of their cell phone use. About a third (36%) say they spend too much time on social media and more than half (54%) of teens say it would be at least somewhat hard to give it up, according to the Pew study.

Before this year, Reardon said, teachers were enforcing the policy to varying degrees. If some teachers were lax about phone use, it made it harder for other teachers to enforce it if they wanted to. The end result was that cell phone use was creating a “roadblock” to students staying on task.

“You get into the ‘why can I do it there, but not here?’ type deal,” Reardon said. “Now if everybody does it, and it becomes embedded in the culture of the school, it becomes a non-issue.”

Reardon said he talks to students about the importance of school by explaining how much money it takes to run the district, and that their parents contribute tax to dollars their educational experience.

“School is serious business,” Reardon said. “When you’re in class you’ve got to do your work, which means you can’t be on your phone.”

Eleventh-grader Keyana Jensen wishes the policy was a bit more relaxed and that phones were allowed during independent work time, or at the end of class when students are done with their work early. Jensen says listening to music with headphones actually helps her to focus while working, especially when the room is noisy.

“If someone’s being loud in the classroom I can’t just like zone them out and listen to music,” Jensen said.

Student Lazzar Magar felt the same, saying she doesn’t feel distracted by her phone in class and wishes she could use it during free moments.

“I get it, it’s so we can focus. But some people can concentrate,” Magar said. “Some people play on their phones all the time, but I’m not that type of person.”

Among schools in the capital region, cell phone policies vary in strictness depending on age.

Most middle schools, including Bow Memorial, Hopkinton Middle and Franklin Middle, do not allow cell phone use at any time during the school day, saying that phones must be turned off and kept in their backpack or locker when in the building, according to their student handbooks. Some middle schools, like Wear Middle, even prefer students don’t bring personal cell phones to school at all, although most schools allow it for safety purposes. Most middle schools encourage students to use a landline phone in the main office if they need to contact a parent or guardian during the day.

High school students are typically entrusted with more freedom when it comes to phone use. At most local high schools, including Hopkinton High and John Stark Regional, high schools are permitted to use their phones at school when they’re not in class, like during lunch or periods, although they must put them away in class, according to their student handbooks.

At Merrimack Valley, the student advisory council is working with the administration this semester to develop clear expectations around cell phone use on campus. In a letter to parents Sept. 23, principal David Miller said the school has experienced some issues with phones causing disruption and students recording others without consent. He sent around a parent survey to gather input on responsible and appropriate mobile phone use in school.

“While the opening of school has been extremely positive, MVHS continues to see a growing number of concerns relative to mobile phones being used inappropriately on school grounds,” Miller wrote. “In many instances, the use of these individual devices is disruptive to the learning environment.”

Franklin High School is going through the same process as Concord of placing new emphasis on a pre-existing policy to make sure it is enforced the same throughout the school.

“It wasn’t as prescribed, in the sense that there were a lot of different expectations in the classroom,” said Franklin High School principal David Levesque. “We as a faculty and staff want to make sure we’re all doing the same thing, certain rules we want to make sure everybody is following.”

Franklin High’s rule is that students are not allowed to use cell phones or headphones in academic areas, like classrooms and the library. They are allowed to use their phones during passing times between classes, in the cafeteria during lunch and in study hall.

“This is a life skill, too. When we’re at work, we can’t be on our phones. And they understand that,” Levesque said.

Teachers have different ways of dealing with it in the classroom. Most teachers just request that phones be put away in backpacks. Some have a bag or basket to keep student phones until the end of class. One teacher in Franklin has charging stations placed throughout the classroom.

There is also flexibility within the policy, Levesque said. If a class finishes work a few minutes early, a teacher may allow students to take out their phones and teachers can incorporate phone use into their lessons for educational purposes.

During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic when learning transitioned online for the majority of students like Hubbard, and using technology all day long became a daily part of everyday life.

“I think the COVID years amplified the use of cell phones because of the communication piece,” Levesque said. “When you’re home by yourself during COVID and you can’t communicate you have to use a cell phone to connect with people. We’re really focusing on our social and emotional learning to build that connection, one-on-one or in groups so they can have those soft skills and be able to communicate with an adult or peer in person.”

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