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Parents 'enraged' after Charlottesville schools ban cell phones

Charlottesville City Schools has effectively banned cell phones for all students.

Superintendent Royal Gurley has called students’ obsession with their mobile devices an "addiction" and teachers have complained to the school board that cell phones have become a regular disruption to classes. Officials have promised the new policy — and the tens of thousands of dollars that is to be spent to enforce it — will not only help students focus on their work but increase connectivity between classmates and improve mental well-being.

In spite of these promises, some parents are pushing back, citing safety concerns.

“It’s too extreme,” M.J. Smith, whose son is a senior at Charlottesville High School, told The Daily Progress. “I think it’s in the right place, but it comes across as heavy-handed and not well thought out in light of the active anxiety that the community is facing with another school year and active shooter robocalls. We’re all worried about that.”

With a recent string of active shooter hoaxes and lockdowns that have occurred at city schools in the recent past, some parents worry that the policy could be dangerous in the event of an emergency. If something happens during school hours, those parents want to be able to communicate with their children, and they want their children to be able to call for help.

The new policy will go into effect on the first day of classes this Wednesday; students will be asked to keep their phones away at all times.

At an undetermined point later in the year, Charlottesville City Schools said it will require students put their cell phones in magnetically sealed pouches for the day, rendering them unable to access the phones until the end of the school day. The pouches can only be opened at release stations which will be located at a school’s exits.

At a Zoom meeting Sunday night, school officials said there would be up to 20 such stations at the high school and up to 10 at the middle school.

Katina Otey, the district’s chief academic officer, referred to it as a “quick and easy process” as students exit the building.

Each student will be provided a pouch by Yondr, a company that, according to its website, “uses a patented system to create phone free spaces.”

Students will be required to put their phone in the pouch and seal it upon entering the school. They’ll also be required to take the pouch home with them and bring it to school each day.

Sarah Norris didn’t think much of the policy until she began to read it more thoroughly.

“I have no problem with children not being able to use cell phones during active instruction, but in between classes, I need him to be able to communicate with me and his father,” Norris, the mother of an eighth-grader, told The Daily Progress.

She said the couple decided to get their son a cell phone after an active shooter lockdown last year that turned out to be a hoax. She said they agreed that they could reduce stress and anxiety by providing their son a means of communication during lockdowns.

“He’s not a kid that’s ever been in trouble for using his phone in class, and I feel like all kids are being penalized for the kids that haven’t been able to follow rules,” Norris said. “Blanket rules across all students because of a select cohort of students aren’t falling in place doesn’t seem very sensible.”

Norris said she supports teachers and the school division taking appropriate disciplinary measures should her son use his phone at inappropriate times.

“It seems as though this cell phone policy is created by people who aren’t really aware or acknowledging the true threats of mass violence that children and parents are dealing with in a public school system,” Smith said. “It’s becoming expected that we’re going to have active shooter threats and lockdowns, and this policy seems to ignore that cell phones are a means to let parents know that kids are safe and vice versa.”

Additionally, the bus driver shortage means that Norris will have to drive her son to and from school each day. Without access to his phone, that could be more difficult to coordinate.

“I don’t want to drive 20 minutes to school and then get a text saying that he’s staying later,” she said. “I’ll be leaving work to go get him and it’s going to be an issue.”

When Smith and Norris spoke to The Daily Progress, they had not yet attended information sessions the school division was hosting to explain the new policy. That’s partly because one of the sessions was held with little advance notice to parents.

“I’m not going to drive to these people for this,” Smith said. “And it’s probably for the best, because I’m so enraged.”

Smith is sympathetic to what the school is trying to do and to the many teachers who say that cell phone use is making it harder to educate students.

“I just don’t think this is solution in light of all the safety threats,” Smith said.

According to Smith, when she previously asked the superintendent about the possibility of installing metal detectors in school buildings, Gurley said that it would be too expensive and would take up too much time in the school day.

The school system is spending $36,590 on the Yondr pouches, spokeswoman Amanda Korman told The Daily Progress.

“We’re planning to continue to hear and address parent concerns, including around those safety situations so that our community feels confident about the implementation of Yondr when it does happen,” Korman wrote in an email.

The Sunday information session held over Zoom was meant to last an hour but lasted two hours due to a long list of questions from parents. Those parents submitted questions in a chat box, as only Gurley, Otey and spokeswoman Beth Cheuk were able to speak during the session.

Gurley noted that the issue of cell phones in classrooms is not unique to Charlottesville but rather a national problem.

“We know that our students are hooked on their phones. They can’t put them down,” Gurley said. “Our educators say cell phones are just a disruption to teaching and learning.”

It was the concerns of those educators that led to the school board to create a cell phone advisory committee last spring. It consisted of 15 to 20 people, mostly teachers, but also students, parents, principles and a school social worker. The group met to discuss the problem of cell phones being used in the classroom and possible solutions.

But Gurley conceded that not everyone on the committee agreed with the decision to implement the pouch policy.

“We just want out kids to be able to be healthy, engaged and connecting,” Otey said. “It doesn’t sound or feel good right now.”

But the policy, she said, might help to teach students to interact with one another instead of just interacting with their phones.

The school will be meeting with students quarterly to discuss the policy with them.

“We’ll see what happens, but those conversation are going to be ongoing with students throughout the year. I’m hoping they’re going to say, ‘I didn’t really need my phone as much as I thought I did. I have more time to spend with friends and connect with my teachers,’” Otey said.

Throughout the session, the school administrators repeatedly referred to connectivity and mental health. “Threat assessment” numbers and mental health challenges have both increased in the district, they said.

“We know that based on the research that we have done and based on what we know about our own school division’s data that we have to do something to improve our students’ mental health,” Otey said.

Norris came away from the meeting unimpressed.

“I wasn’t able to get any more info than was previously shared in emails. They don’t have plan for lockdown which is pretty disappointing,” she said afterwards.

“I’m no more comfortable with the policy than I was the other day.”


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