It’s mandatory for Janina Green’s 7- and 14-year-olds to take their cellphones to school. The Glen Burnie resident wants to be able to reach her children immediately if there’s an emergency, and she needs to let the oldest daughter know to pick up the youngest if both parents are working late.
But the phones that are an essential tool for Green’s family can also be a distraction at school. The 14-year-old once got in trouble for having her phone out in class, and as punishment, Green locked access to her daughter’s apps and restricted her phone calls and texts. It didn’t last long, though: Green had to remove the restrictions shortly after so her daughter could use an app for class and message her classmates for a group project.
In her view, that’s life. “Kids have to avoid temptation in a lot of different ways,” Green said. “It’s just part of growing up.”
The cellphones in just about every middle- and high-schooler’s backpack are nonetheless treated like contraband in many local classrooms, where pandemic-weary teachers want to limit disruptions to learning. Despite policies that restrict when students can use their phones, teachers say confiscating one can lead to unnecessary battles that take even more time away from instruction. And much of the time, those battles involve parents who want their children to be reachable instantly, with little support from administrators.
Unlike most school systems in the region, Anne Arundel County, where Green’s children attend, doesn’t have a blanket policy on student cellphones. Each school can make its own rules.
That’s a good thing in theory, said Melissa McHarg, who teaches eighth grade at Lindale Middle School in Linthicum Heights, as long as administrators are around to help enforce the school’s policy.
“I personally don’t like to be the one to get into the power struggle with the phone” and risk sullying the positive relationship she’s built with a student, she said.
McHarg has tried to get creative with managing students’ phone use. When her students were sending Snapchat messages, texting their parents and scheduling bathroom meetups with their friends in the middle of class, she hung up a pocket chart made to hold calculators behind her desk.
“I’d give them a warning and then, if I had to talk to them again, I took it and put it in the pocket chart,” she said. “That’s where it stayed for the rest of the class period.”
At first, students resisted the new method. McHarg would have to call an administrator to her classroom for assistance, which became difficult because administrators were often covering vacant positions. Later, she introduced another method: her own charging station equipped with Apple and Android chargers. Students plugged in behind her desk at the start of class and couldn’t get their phones back until class was over. It seemed effective, but her only concern was handing off students with fully charged phones to another teacher.
Anne Arundel’s cellphone policy is something “we are going to take a look at and discuss,” Superintendent Mark Bedell said, though he didn’t want to say what would change before he had a chance to talk to educators about it. Any policy update would go into effect in the 2024-2025 school year.
Policies around the region vary, though typically students are allowed to have phones on school grounds, on the bus and, for many secondary students, during lunch. Some policies state devices can be used during instruction.
In Baltimore City, cellphones are allowed on campus if both the student and parent signed a contract that acknowledges their understanding of the student handbook. In Carroll County, high schoolers can use their phones while changing classes. And in Harford County, elementary students can use their phones before and after school if they aren’t making calls, taking pictures or recording others.
There’s evidence that banning phones from classrooms can improve academic performance, with standardized test scores rising 6% on average and more than 14% for low-achieving students without phones in school in one 2016 study. But phones can also improve motivation, support pedagogical innovation and greater interactivity in the classroom, according to the Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy.
The journal suggests school phone policies “strike a balance between protecting the rights of individual students, as well as the interest of their parents to have a more active role in directing the upbringing of their children.” Policies should be written with input from teachers, staff, students and parents; include exemptions for emergencies and medical reasons; specify the infractions that would warrant a phone being taken away; and require parents to read and sign it.
Cheryl Bost, president of the state’s teachers union and a Baltimore County teacher, said those policies should apply to headphones and smartwatches, as well.
Either way, “A good policy is only as good as it’s enforced,” she said. “As a teacher … I would want the central office to have a position. I want the administrators in the building to enforce that position.”
Addie Kaufman, executive director of the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals, agreed.
“As a former principal, I’d say I’d rather not have a policy if I can’t enforce it. It becomes a joke if I can’t enforce it,” she said.
Kaufman said principals told her parents are the biggest violators of the policy by contacting their kids during the school day.
Em Callahan, a sixth grade English teacher at Lindale Middle, said she once had a student use her phone to call her mom because Callahan wouldn’t let students go out in the rain on field day. The mom yelled at Callahan on the phone, saying “my daughter earned this,” since it was the last week of school, and criticized the way Callahan spoke to her daughter.
Callahan called phones a “blessing and a curse.” She’s also seen how helpful they can be in emergencies. While she was teaching in a New Jersey school in 2016, her building was placed on lockdown as law enforcement pursued a man accused of dual bombings and a stabbing rampage. Students and staff were moved to the gym and some of her colleagues left their phones in their classrooms. Callahan kept hers and her colleagues borrowed it to update their families.
Kaufman, the former principal, said the need to be on the phone all the time has only been exacerbated by these kinds of incidents, school shootings and the pandemic.
Angelina Xu, president of the state’s student council, said she started high school during the pandemic when students were learning virtually. The only way to meet people was through social media and now it’s a way to maintain those relationships. She uses her phone after class to find her friends across campus.
“If there was a ban on phones, I know that it wouldn’t work,” the rising senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Montgomery County said. “Students can get really creative for something they want.”
Some of her teachers have gotten creative, too. One of her chemistry assignments involved making a TikTok video.
Her parents encourage her to take her phone to school, too. Rather, they demand it — she once got in trouble for forgetting to bring her phone to middle school.
Kayla Drummond, student member of Baltimore County’s school board, said high schoolers at least should be able to have their phones.
“We’re old enough to make our own decisions on what we do with our phones,” she said. “Once we go into the real world, college, get a job, there’s not going to be people who can stop us being on our phones.”