Governor orders state policies to limit cell phone use in Roanoke school district

Widespread cell phone use by students could soon be a thing of the past in Roanoke City Public Schools and classrooms across the state. ROANOKE RAMBLER ARCHIVE PHOTO ILLUSTRATION

Ubiquitous cell phone use by students could soon be a thing of the past in Roanoke City Public Schools and classrooms across the state.

As Roanoke school board members prepared Tuesday to hear an update on recommendations to restrict phones, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office announced what he called the nation’s first statewide effort to restrict cellphones in the classroom.

State officials are tasked with releasing by Aug. 15 draft guidelines for school districts to adopt policies “to achieve cellphone-free educational learning environments, such as pouches, dedicated cellphone ‘lockers,’ and other best practices” that communities have tested elsewhere.

“We are proud to be at the forefront,” Superintendent Verletta White told school board members Tuesday night. “We appreciate the governor’s support on this important issue because we know everyone is talking about it today, but we’ve been talking about this for quite some time.”

In April, Roanoke schools began forming a group of parents, teachers and students to guide the school board on how to crack down on students watching videos, browsing social media and texting friends during class.

The task force recommends that the district take different approaches for high school students and for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, said Archie Freeman, the district’s chief administrative and instructional officer.

Freeman said phones must be off and away throughout the school day for K-8 students, except in situations where a student may need a medical exception, which would require a doctor’s note.

At high schools, the group recommended that students keep phones off and away during classes, but they would be allowed in the hallways and cafeteria. It was not immediately clear whether a new policy would require phones to be locked in the classroom or whether students could leave them in their backpacks, for example.

School board members are expected to vote on final recommendations next month, when a school spokesperson said more details about the policy will be provided.

“We’re not going to wait,” Freeman said. “We want to move forward now.”

Youngkin’s executive order says local school districts can adopt “age-appropriate policies and procedures” around cellphone use before the state-imposed final deadline of Jan. 1.

“Implementing cellphone-free education in Virginia’s K-12 public schools is critical, especially given youth chronic health conditions such as depression and anxiety, which are driven in part by extensive social media and cellphone use,” the governor’s office said in a news release.

Youngkin’s announcement will kick off six weeks of “listening sessions” hosted by the state Department of Education to gather public input.

School board members expressed appreciation for the task force’s recommendations but did not express opinions on the proposed policies. Board members have previously been receptive to the idea of ​​limiting cellphone use in class.

The group also recommended possible violations, ranging from an initial verbal warning to confiscation and parental notification.

A school district survey conducted in February found that a slight majority of the 3,676 respondents said they would support keeping cellphones locked away at the start of class. Teachers and staff expressed the most support for restricting cellphone use, while parents were more permissive and students largely favored unrestricted access.

Three-quarters of all respondents admitted that cell phones are a distraction to learning, and one in four educators reported telling students to put their phones away at least five times per class.