Game of phones: Local districts manage tech use among students

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As technology continues to branch out and become more ubiquitous, school districts must decide how to regulate student use of cell phones, smart watches and other devices. Local public and private education entities have each taken different approaches.

Trinity Episcopal School has never allowed cell phones in the classroom, while Eanes ISD established new districtwide technology regulations this school year. Lake Travis ISD incorporates cell phones into instructional time, but if students do not adhere to district rules, phones are confiscated and a $15 fee is required to get them back. At Leander ISD teachers set phone-use rules for their classrooms.

Eanes ISD

The EISD student handbook was overdue for revisions and updates regarding the handling of electronic devices, Assistant Superintendent Jeff Arnett said. That section had not been updated for about six years, and administrators recognized the need to catch up with evolving technology.

At the beginning of 2018 a group of parents came together to ask the district to better manage personal devices in school.

Brooke Shannon, a parent of children in kindergarten, fourth and fifth grade, said she kept hearing from parents about how pervasive the problem of student phone use was becoming. Shannon said individual teacher discretion to regulate personal device usage was probably complicating the issue.

“Some teachers were great and wouldn’t allow phones to become a distraction,” she said. “But some kids said they were listening to music, watching TV, playing games, looking at Instagram and more in the classroom.”

Shannon said that while time spent on a device affects academic success, it also plays a role in emotional well-being. She and other parents started asking questions about the language in the student handbook and began talking to school board members and school principals.

About a year and a half ago Shannon started a movement called Wait Until 8th, a pledge to empower parents to wait until eighth grade to get their child a smartphone.

Shannon intended it to be a resource and support group for the Westlake community, but it spread across the nation. To date there are more than 13,000 pledges, and Shannon has appeared on “Good Morning America” and “The Today Show,” among others, to talk about the initiative.

It was because of Wait Until 8th that parents initially approached Shannon with their concerns.

“We had coffee events around Westlake to hear what people were experiencing,” she said. “Out of that came an open letter with close to 700 families [or about 1,400 signatures]asking for change.”

The group met with the superintendent’s office several times over the spring and summer and collaborated with staff to change the language in the handbook.

A better definition of what constituted instructional time was established to help teachers across the district clearly enforce the new rules.

“We also looked at providing some latitude, particularly in the high school,” Arnett said. “We realize they’re emerging into young adulthood and there might be some meaningful uses for personal devices when permission is given.”

Permission and who can grant it was also defined in the handbook, as well as distinctions between elementary, middle and high school.

“In a year or two this handbook could be out-of-date again,” Arnett said. “We’re already dealing with smart watches, and Google glasses are on the horizon.”

He said the district is working to create language that is specific enough for today but broad enough to encompass potential new technology.

“We can’t foresee what kids will be bringing with them to school in the very near future,” Arnett said. “But we want the language to be versatile and nimble enough to be easily revised.”

The district is also creating an advisory committee to further discuss personal devices in school, the new handbook language and what might be incorporated into it next year.

“I think it will be a continuous dialogue,” Shannon said. “Our children are at school seven to eight hours a day. As parents we need to track they are in the best environment, and a key part of that is what they’re looking at and listening to.”

Elaine Trull, parent to fifth- and third-grade students, agreed that allowing teachers to permit smartphones at their discretion opened a door for misuse.

“We had heard some teachers might allow a phone after a test was finished,” Trull, who addressed the school board on the topic in May, said. “But that might encourage a student to rush through their test to check Snapchat, for example.”

Trull said while it is a parent’s choice whether and when to purchase their child a smartphone, the distractions created by phones during the school day needed to be addressed.

Lake Travis ISD

The district is a “bring-your-own-device” environment. Students are permitted to have their phones in school, but curricula are not created based on the assumption everyone will have access to one.

LTISD Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth Deterra said district-owned devices are available for student use and that all students must undergo digital citizenship training to use the technology.

“We want them to utilize their technology in instructional settings,” she said. “But there are times within an instructional period when a teacher might say ‘all screens down’ or ‘cell phones must be visible on top of the desk.’”

Guidelines are assessed at the beginning and end of the school year. If a device distracts from instruction or is used without permission, it can be confiscated and marked with a $15 retrieval fee.

“We’ll also troubleshoot if any issues that we didn’t think about come up during the year,” Deterra said. “Technology, applications and what the students can access are always changing.”

Deterra said personal devices in the classroom have not proven to be a negative issue, and the district is not currently considering a stricter policy.

“What is happening right now seems to be consistent with expectations,” she said. “The kids are so astute with what they can do with technology, and teachers are being able to utilize that in a positive way.”

Trinity Episcopal School

In the 20 years since Trinity has been operational, cell phones have never been and still are not allowed. If a student needs to communicate with a parent for any reason, he or she is required to let a teacher know first.

“We are a one-to-one school,” Trinity Dean of Students Jared Disher said. “Every student has a Macbook Air or iPad, so there is no need for cell phones.”

School policy incorporates the engagement of ongoing conversations with students, faculty and staff about Trinity’s tech protocol and hosts occasional forums, Disher said.

“We’re trying to mold adults that will develop self-reliance without dependence on personal devices,” he added. “We don’t believe they are compatible with the Trinity environment.”

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Sally Grace Holtgrieve
Sally Grace Holtgrieve solidified her passion for news during her time as Editor-in-Chief of Christopher Newport University's student newspaper, The Captain's Log. She started her professional career at The Virginia Gazette and moved to Texas in 2015 to cover government and politics at The Temple Daily Telegram. She has been covering the Lake Travis/Westlake area for Community Impact since February 2018.
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