State expected to provide funds for school cellphone bans

Published: 5/25/2023 5:59:05 PM

Modified: 5/25/2023 5:58:50 PM

The state’s K-12 education department is encouraging districts to restrict or ban students’ cellphone use in schools, possibly moving toward a statewide mandate in the future.

Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeffrey Riley announced Tuesday that the department will “likely” create a matching grant program of up to $1 million for districts that pilot a cellphone restriction policy.

This is “not a mandate at this time,” he noted, “but we’re certainly interested in piloting more of this.”

Riley invited teachers, administrators and students from schools that have instituted restrictions or bans to speak before the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at their monthly meeting on Tuesday. Some school representatives discussed their policies that require students to give up their phones at the start of class. Other schools restrict phone use in hallways as well.

Educators said student reliance on devices has increased since COVID-19 lockdowns caused children to look to screens for social interaction and learning, and questions were raised as to the effectiveness of cellphone restriction policies in an age where students can get social media and text message alerts sent to other forms of technology, like Apple watches.

In an effort to mitigate distractions caused by cellphones in the classroom, the Greenfield School Department joined a growing number of districts this year in implementing Yondr pouches — magnetic cellphone pouches where students’ phones can be locked inside during the day.

The pouches were created by a company headquartered in San Francisco and first implemented in Greenfield at the start of the 2022-2023 academic year at the middle and high school levels. Superintendent Christine DeBarge, who ordered the pouches, previously said the start-up cost is about $16,000, which would cover getting enough Yondr pouches for middle and high school students. After that, the recurring cost is approximately $12,000 per year, depending on student enrollment.

“We just ask that the superintendent try to find some ways to evaluate the program we put in place to stop cellphone use,” said School Committee member Glenn Johnson-Mussad. “We did see improvement in behavior, but at the same time, students were also getting back to normal after COVID and some of the behavioral problems we saw at the start of the year were going down anyway.”

During at least one School Committee meeting following the implementation of the Yondr program, student representatives shared that while the pouches had successfully cut back on distractions in the classroom, there was opposition from some students.

Elsewhere in western Massachusetts, Chicopee and Springfield schools have implemented similar programs. Schools in Milford and Boston also lock away students’ phones during the day.

Following the implementation of the program, the Greenfield School Committee’s policy and program subcommittee, chaired by Johnson-Mussad, began crafting a new cellphone policy.

“We’re very proud of our new policy on cellphones,” he said. “We’re really interested in improving student outcomes and we found cellphones are a detriment to student learning.”

The policy, which the committee voted to support earlier this month, explicitly states that “schools will … not allow students to access cellphones during the school day.” It further states that programs to curb cellphone use will be based on evidence of effectiveness and evaluated regularly. The Yondr program isn’t expressly named so as to leave the program in use up to the superintendent’s discretion.

“We don’t have the resources to cope with these devices in the classroom and make sure students are learning,” Johnson-Mussad explained. “I think it’s great that DESE is heading in that direction, and I’m proud we’ve been able to play a role in creating some policy around this that might be useful to other districts as well.”

At Tuesday’s panel with the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, there wasn’t much discussion about the possible advantages of cellphones in the classroom, though board Chair Katherine Craven asked if there was “any thought given, though, to the phone as a pedagogical tool,” or “a pathway to more learning.”

Educators responded that teachers have the option to return students’ phones if they want to use them in a lesson.

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at or 413-930-4429. State House News Service reporter Sam Drysdale contributed.

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