Despite protests from some parents, Charlottesville schools are pushing on with their attempt to separate students from their cell phones.
Weeks into the school year, the district’s “off and away the entire day” approach — wherein students can have their phones taken away for the day if caught using them in school — is drawing mixed reviews.
“In talking to teachers, I see how hard it is for them to teach with people constantly looking at their phones,” Maggie Heaphy, a senior at Charlottesville High School told The Daily Progress.
On the other hand, she also sees the cell phone prohibition as a “student health issue.”
“What if you need to get in contact even with another student in the school who’s in need of something?” she asked, noting that many of her classmates have been resistant to the change.
Ben Hays, a Charlottesville parent of three including two high-schoolers, said he feels that the policy has been good for teachers and his children’s education.
“In general, the attempt to make cell phones away for the day has been great so far,” Hays told The Daily Progress.
But he’s not willing to make a judgement one way or the other on the next step of the process: Yondr pouches.
At some point in the future, the Charlottesville school division plans to distribute pouches to each student, who will then be required to put their cell phone in the magnetically sealed contraption and will be unable to open it until the end of the day.
Yondr, a company that aims to create phone-free spaces, said it has seen a 150% increase in the number of schools using its pouches in 2023.
One of them is Carter G. Woodson Middle School in Hopewell, which implemented the policy a year ago. At first some parents and students were resistant, Principal Jeff Boarman told The Daily Progress. Before the division rolled out the program, it held a virtual town hall with parents. Fifty showed up and voiced their concerns, including what might happen in the event of an emergency.
“By the time the meeting was over, we probably had fewer than five parents who actually called the school or told their child don’t use it,” Boarman said. “It was very, very, very few parents.”
Prior to Yondr, the school had an “off and away” policy for years. But it was very difficult to enforce and thus ineffective.
“If 10 kids have their phones out during class, what is a teacher supposed to do? It gets to be overwhelming, and kids figured that out,” Boarman said.
Then came the pouches.
Communicating with students and parents beforehand was crucial to making the policy successful, as was making sure that students were actually using them. The results, he said, have been worth it.
“I never want to work in another school that has cell phones available. Ever. It’s that different,” Boarman said. “It’s like a school before cell phones were invented. So kids are kids.”
Montgomery, Alabama, is in a similar position as Charlottesville. Montgomery Public Schools began using the pouches for its middle and high schools when classes started on Aug. 10.
Three weeks in, the pouch policy is going fairly well with little pushback, said Superintendent Melvin Brown. That doesn’t necessarily surprise him, but he’s certainly pleased with the results so far.
“A typical day in typical high school where kids are able to use cell phones, you’ll see hundreds of kids in hallways with their heads down looking at their phones,” Brown told The Daily Progress.
Now, he said he’s noticed that students are communicating more. Seniors have stepped up to help freshmen find their way around, he said, and more students are paying attention in class.
“The biggest surprise I’ve gotten is kids recognize the fact that they’re now conversing more and having conversations in the hallway and cafeteria,” he said.
Like Boarman, Brown said he thinks the early success was helped by clearly communicating with students and parents.
“We were very careful about explaining why we’ve done it,” Brown said, repeatedly emphasizing that the community must understand the “why” behind the policy decision.
Back in Charlottesville, the division appears to be attempting to do just that.
In a recent message to parents and students, Superintendent Royal Gurley recently gave an update on the “off and away the entire day” policy.
“Students and families have been very cooperative, and we have received many comments and emails from teachers, students, and families reporting that they appreciate the change in atmosphere and reduction in distractions,” he wrote, while also admitting that students sometimes disobey the new rule.
As for the pouches, the division is in no rush to use them.
“The Yondr pouch program will only be successful if our students, staff, and families reach consensus on seeing it as the best path forward and in the best interests of students,” Gurley wrote.
His team has heard three main points of concern with the program: how parents and their children would coordinate last-minute transportation changes, whether the schools’ offices would be able to handle the influx of students who may need to use office phones to call home, and what would happen during an emergency situation.
The latter was the top question the division has received, and the school division is working to answer it.
“We know it is only human to want to be connected in situations where stress is high,” Gurley said. “Because this is so important, we will stay in the mode of ‘off and away the entire day’ until we have a plan that gains consensus among staff, students, and families.”
Ben Castleman is the parent of a student at Charlottesville High, and he empathizes with parents worried about not having a direct line of communication to their kids, especially in emergency situations.
“I want her to be able to communicate with me, and vice versa, about these and other issues that arise,” Castleman told The Daily Progress in an email. “But I also believe that we have to weigh these concerns against what we want all of our children to get out of their time in middle and high school.”
As an educator at the University of Virginia, he does not allow cell phones in his class, calling them “distractive and counterproductive to learning and engagement.”
“In my view, the solution to parents’ concerns is not to allow youth access to phones during the school day, but rather to ensure the city schools have robust communication platforms to engage parents; that those platforms deploy updates in real time when crises arise; and that the schools have sufficient staff so that we as parents can reach someone and communicate messages to our students when necessary,” Castleman said.
Whenever the division does implement Yondr, and if reviews from administrators at two other school districts are any indication, Charlottesville may find it to be worth the controversy.
Boarman said that at his middle school the policy gives students a break from social media and the stress that can come with it.
“They don’t have to worry if they do something stupid or come to school with dirty clothes on that other kids are going to take a picture of them and post it on social media,” he said.
Similarly, Brown thinks Montgomery students are connecting on a personal level that he hasn’t seen since COVID.
“They’re recapturing the organic relationships you typically see happening in schools,” he said.