Removing distraction as a barrier to learning. That’s the goal of Fairfax County Public Schools’ (FCPS) new, district-wide cellphone policy. Originally, each school had their own individualized plan, but this changed in June when the Fairfax County School Board updated the Student Rights and Responsibilities (SR&R) guide for the 2022-2023 academic year. The policy went into effect in August with the beginning of the new school year.
The policy varies slightly depending on grade level. For students in kindergarten through eighth grade, phones must be silenced and kept put away for the duration of the school day. Seventh and eighth graders are allowed to use their phones before the first and after the last school bell. For ninth through 12th graders, phones must be away for all classes. Across all grades, there are exceptions for phone usage for things like emergencies or class activities.
Sixth grade students at middle schools like Poe, Holmes, and Glasgow follow the policy of their grade; but seventh and eighth grade students at secondary schools like Robinson, Lake Braddock, and Hayfield adhere to the policy of the school.
FCPS principals say a main reason the cellphone policy is in place throughout the district is because schools across the board had problems with students not paying attention in class due to their phones.
At Rocky Run Middle School, Principal Amy Goodloe says students are required to keep phones away in backpacks or lockers. They may not be on their person. If parents need to get in touch with their child, they can always call the office. Staff at other FCPS middle schools say this hasn’t been difficult, but initially garnered concern from the community.
“When I was thinking about the number of times I was texting my own three sons through middle school, to coordinate everything from doctor’s appointments to child care to physical therapy appointments, I just can’t imagine that I’d be bombarding the front office every time I had to coordinate with them,” school board member Megan McLaughlin said at the board’s June meeting.
Initially, aspects of the cellphone policy were met with some hesitancy by parents and administrators — including those worried about children who needed accommodations. Per the policy, accommodations are allowed.
Herndon High School Principal Elizabeth Noto says that most of the concerns she heard from parents involved them needing reassurance that their child can access phones for health or individualized learning reasons.
FCPS handles those accommodation requests on a case-by-case basis involving students and their families, counselors, and special education case managers as needed.
However, some parents worried that the accomodations would single out students. Back in May, parent Anna Stolley Persky tweeted, “100 percent respectfully, as a parent, I am pretty vocally against the proposed cellphone policy, esp. when it comes to high schoolers. I think kids who have IEPs and 504s that include cellphones will be singled out and perhaps unwilling to use their technology as needed.” She also noted that technology isn’t all bad — and phones are a big part of the way people connect with one another and the world.
Even with some hesitancy, parents were generally in favor of the new policy even prior to the change. A survey from the FCPS Department of Special Services of about 2,000 Fairfax County parents finds that about 82 percent of pre-K through sixth grade parents, 79 percent of seventh and eighth-grade parents, and 76 percent of high school parents agreed to the recommendations.
Since the policy was enacted, FCPS principals say it’s been a nonissue inside the classroom. They’ve had few incidents with students — though there are procedures in place in case usage gets out of hand — and note those students have been responding well to the new policy.
“I think one of the things that is really interesting about this and why people assume that it’s going to be really tough to implement, is that we are so very attached to our phones in general. It’s used for so many other things than just phone calls,” Noto says.
Goodloe understands the policy not just from a principal point of view. She says with having children of her own in FCPS, the change has really opened her eyes to how much of a distraction phones were previously.
“From a parent perspective … it is freeing that I do not get incessant texts. My middle schooler — who I really have to work hard with to disengage from the phone — last year, I would get 10, 12 texts a day from her, almost like a play-by-play of whether it was a good or bad day and what social situations were going down. Clearly she was distracted, and it was distracting me. So I fully support it as a parent. It’s been freeing for me,” she explains.
Teachers agree that the policy has freed up distraction in the classroom, increasing attention and participation that’s been suffering following an era of virtual learning.
“It was a great first week of school. Since FCPS new cellphone policy requires students to not have their phones during instruction, it motivated my students to participate in class more and complete their work because they were not distracted by their phones,” Centreville High School teacher Julie Perry tweeted back in August.
Now, Goodloe and Noto say it’s not just the students who have to follow the cellphone policy. Staff is also responsible for leading by example, so students can better understand when or when it’s not appropriate to be on their phone. For the principals, that means making sure teachers and administrative staff — themselves included — have the phone away and aren’t staring at it in the hallway.
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