Governor Youngkin wants cellphone-free schools in Virginia

Governor Youngkin wants cellphone-free schools in Virginia

Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin called for action to restrict cellphone use in schools in an executive order on Tuesday, citing growing concerns about the impact of cellphone use and social media on young people’s mental health.

Under the order, the state Department of Education will create guidelines for school districts to develop policies for a “cellphone-free” educational environment. The goal, the order says, is to limit the amount of time children spend on their phones “without parental supervision.” The order does not represent a complete ban on cellphone use in the classroom.

“This important action will promote a healthier and more purposeful learning environment where every child can learn freely. Creating a cellphone and social media-free learning environment in Virginia’s K-12 education system will benefit students, parents and educators,” Youngkin said in a statement.

The move comes as states across the country increasingly seek to restrict cellphone use in schools. Last month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced his support for restrictions after U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy called for tobacco-style warnings to be placed on social media apps to inform users of the harmful effects on adolescent mental health.

Other states have taken similar steps. Indiana passed a law this year requiring school districts to adopt policies prohibiting mobile device use during class, and last year Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed the nation’s most restrictive smartphone law for schools, banning smartphone use during class and blocking access to social media over campus internet.

The debate over smartphones in schools has been going on for years. Teachers have long complained about students texting, scrolling and playing games during class, which has led some to enforce their own classroom bans – students must turn in or put away their phones. Some schools and districts have also taken action by using tech products like magnetic bags that can lock students’ devices for the day.

Last fall, a study by the children’s nonprofit Common Sense Media found that 97 percent of teens used cellphones during the school day. Some researchers believe cellphones contribute to poorer academic performance and a rise in mental health problems among teens. Now, the stakes are higher as schools rush to catch up on learning lost during the pandemic.

Parents are divided on the issue, with some advocating for stricter restrictions, while others believe cell phone use should be left up to parents or express concerns about having to contact students in the event of an emergency or school closure.

Education was a central issue for Youngkin, who ran for office on a “parental rights” message. Virginia’s order has two reasons. Limiting excessive screen time, the state argues, will both benefit students’ mental health and eliminate distractions in the classroom, thereby increasing learning success.

“Creating a cell phone-free classroom environment in public schools is not only a prudent measure, but also an essential one to promote a healthier and more focused classroom environment in which every child can learn freely,” the order states.

The order directs the Department of Education to hold hearings to gather input from parents and stakeholders on what approaches would be best for Virginia. The department will then issue guidance on best practices and policies that school districts can implement. The Department of Education should have final guidance ready in September so districts can begin implementing cell phone policies by Jan. 1. The guidance is not a mandatory requirement.

Senator Schuyler T. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), a public school teacher, praised the approach, which allows the state to gather feedback on the issue and then provide guidelines to districts so they can figure out what works for them.

“It’s really all on point, and that’s why I think there’s bipartisan support to do something,” VanValkenburg said. “Because (smartphones) are a problem. They’re a problem in the classroom, and that’s something that needs to be addressed.”

According to the Youngkin administration, the goal of the order is, among other things, to streamline efforts by individual teachers, schools or districts to restrict phone use by creating guidelines and best practices for the state.

Many school districts in Virginia already have policies restricting cell phone use, and others are currently discussing how to better enforce or strengthen such policies. The Fairfax County School Board voted in May to have the school board develop a pilot program to confiscate cell phones during the school day in the state’s largest district. The board is expected to present the pilot program to the school board in the summer.

David Walrod, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said in an interview that Fairfax schools enforce cell phone rules with varying degrees of rigor. He said the statewide guidelines could be helpful in ensuring consistency across the district.

As the father of an incoming seventh-grader, Walrod said he understands the need for stricter restrictions. While phones can be an effective learning tool when used correctly, the devices can very easily become distractions, he said.

“I think anything we can do to steer our kids in the direction we want to steer them will be helpful,” Walrod said. “I don’t necessarily agree with Governor Youngkin on many things, but I’m not against him.”

Last month, the Loudoun County School Board adopted a policy restricting cell phone use during class. The policy, which received hundreds of comments from parents, teachers and students, states that phones and earbuds must be on silent and out of reach during class unless “special circumstances exist and there is a documented exception.”

In Arlington County, a parent group is urging the school district to create a countywide policy requiring students to store their cell phones in lockers during the day. In a letter to the school board, Arlington Parents for Education argued that the policy is the best way to curb the impact of cell phones.

“Now that we know the damaging impact that personal devices have on students’ personal well-being and their ability to learn and access the curriculum, the urgency of taking action is greater than ever,” the group wrote in its letter.

Amy Rzepka, a mother of a middle school student and a board member of Arlington Parents for Education, said in an interview that she is excited to see the state’s guidelines and the measures the school district enacts. She is an advocate of restricting phone use for the entire school day, not just during class.

“Given the proven negative impact of cell phones on students’ mental health and academic performance, I find it very encouraging to see Virginia addressing this issue statewide,” she said.