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Hanover school board considers limiting student cellphone use

A panorama of the School Board members
Shaban Athuman
VPM News File
From left: Kate Brown, Clerk of the School Board, Michael Gill, Superintendent of Schools, School board members Robert Hundley, Ola Hawkins, Chairman Bob May, Vice Chair Steven Ikenberry, Greg Coleman, John E. Redd, and Whitney Welsh during a Hanover County Public School Board meeting on Tuesday, July 11, 2023 at the Hanover County Public Schools in Ashland.

The board could vote in July to change its code of conduct, preventing students from accessing mobile devices during school hours.

Research shows phone use is impacting the well-being of students in the classroom. Hanover County’s school board aims to disrupt that trend by drafting a policy prohibiting students' use of mobile devices during the school day.

The board discussed proposed changes to its code of conduct during its monthly meeting in June. Jennifer Greif, Hanover’s assistant superintendent for instructional leadership and chief academic officer, explained that students using their phones during class is a divisionwide issue.

“Although the board originally came to staff and said, ‘Let's look at solutions for elementary and middle school,' it became rapidly aware to all of us that this is not an elementary problem — or just a middle problem,” Greif told the board. “It's a problem K through 12.”

Greif told the board the policy is meant to improve the in-class experience, and prevent the adverse mental and social-emotional effects associated with students and phone use.

As written, Hanover’s draft policy disallows the use of students' phones, earbuds, headphones, digital watches and similar devices during class time, lunches and between class periods.

These devices would still be allowed on school property and used for certain instructional purposes or emergencies, but stored in a backpack or an alternative container starting from when students enter the school and until the final bell.

Several school districts in Virginia have passed similar policies restricting cellphone use during school hours. Richmond, for example, adopted its own cellphone free policy in several high schools in January.

Virginia lawmakers also batted around statewide legislation that would have granted school boards the ability to ban cellphones. Although the bill advanced out of the House of Delegates, the proposal was not taken up in the Senate.

Nationally, 77% of schools in the U.S. prohibit cellphones at school for nonacademic use, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Greif suggested that Hanover’s plan could be rolled out in phases or through pilot programs across the school system, similar to how Hanover implemented electronic hall passes.

“We do want to acknowledge that this may work. And this may not work,” Grief said. “So, we want to have alternatives. We want to be able to take steps incrementally. If we are finding that the strategies that we are employing are not having the desired effect, then we need to implement a different strategy.”

Members of the school board were largely in support of the policy change. School board chair Bob May said he expected teachers and administrators to take a “zero-tolerance approach” when it comes to enforcing the rule, if passed.

“I think the board is fairly close to unanimous that we want to try the policy … . [A]nd we want it to have teeth,” May said earlier in June. “So, I hope that we can put a policy in place that all principals and all teachers can understand.”

Students caught breaking the proposed policy could face a variety of punishments based on grade level and their number of offenses. Consequences could change as the board considers revisions to Hanover’s existing procedures at its July 11 meeting.

Lyndon German covers Henrico and Hanover counties for VPM News.
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