It all started with a knock on the door.
Andy Josselyn was teaching his afternoon English class when one of his students from a previous period knocked. Before he could ask what was up, the student pushed past him, made a beeline for another student and began fighting. Josselyn quickly tried to intercept, which is protocol for teachers, and then it happened. The punch.
He wished it stopped there.
Josselyn will never forget what he considers his worst day as a teacher. As he was walking the students to the front office, other students stood there pointing and laughing while recording the ordeal with their phones.
It still went on. After taking two days off, thinking the drama had simmered, he came back to a photo of the incident being turned into a meme.
The situation was exacerbated by the cellphones, Josselyn said.
“I think it’s all connected to phones,” said Josselyn. “When somebody calls you out on social media, and they’re in the other part of the building and everyone’s seen it, what are you going to do about it? The drama is heightened, as well as being a distraction in the class.”
That incident was one of many that led Josselyn to join the Charlottesville City Schools’ cellphone committee that was formed in May of 2023.
Cellphones have long been an issue in schools of all levels across the country. Many children simply do not put their phones away during class. Teachers say their students are frequently on them, diverting their attention to social media, texts or other apps, and not engaging with the teacher or the lesson. Problems ranging from cyberbullying, lowered grades and test scores, poor content retention and more have led schools to employ some kind of ban on cellphone use.
More than 75% of schools in the United States have some kind of a cellphone ban in place, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Cellphone use has intensified since the COVID-19 lockdown, City Schools officials have said. And they have gone back and forth on how they should address the issue.
Just days before the first day of school, they made a decision. City Schools will implement stricter policies after a decline in student-teacher relationships, student engagement, and a rise in classroom disruptions and dependency on cellphones, among other issues, said Superintendent Royal Gurley at an Aug. 3 School Board meeting. Numerous teachers, like Josselyn, and other staff have brought their complaints to the school division.
This is the second year the school system is enforcing stricter policies regarding phone use. Last year, City Schools leaders ordered all of their schools to have phones be “off and away” during class time. But not all teachers enforced the rule the same, thus causing a fluctuation in student use depending on the teachers and faculty, said Gurley at the meeting.
Now, the division plans to take more drastic measures to ensure students at all of its schools keep their phones off and away all day (i.e. anywhere but in their hands), even during lunch and break times.
The decision is one that many school districts in the country are implementing. Orange County Public Schools near Orlando, Florida kicked off the school year with a new ban on cellphones, instructing students to have their phones put away during the entire school day, including lunch. One Missouri high school is forcing students to either keep their cellphones at home or check them into the office until the end of the school day. School districts in Florida are now embracing a new law that strictly prohibits cellphone use during instructional time unless authorized by teachers.
Charlottesville’s policy last year had a series of steps teachers were supposed to take if their students used their devices during class. The teacher was instructed to first issue a verbal warning, and if the student breaks the rule a second time, a student conference would be scheduled. Third and fourth offenses include parent or guardian conferences along with a referral.
Originally, the school system intended to use pencil boxes to assist with the off and away policy by having students’ cellphones in them for the duration of class time. The district proceeded to buy 1,500 pencil boxes for $3,500 for all Charlottesville schools, said Amanda Korman, spokesperson for City Schools. But the district did not receive the delivery until later in the school year. Teachers tried to use envelopes instead, which quickly proved to be ineffective, said Josselyn.
This year, City Schools wanted to try something different. In comes the Yondr pouches.
Students place their phones in a small, silver pouch that is controlled by a magnet. Once a student walks into a “phone-free” zone, the pouches are instantly locked and can only be unlocked by an “unlocking base” that will be located outside of the phone-free zone. Students will have the pouches on them at all times.
Buying pouches for the three schools will cost the school system $36,590.
Many teachers spoke in favor of the pouches when the cellphone committee and school officials debated possible options. But for some teachers, it’s not about the pouches or the pencil boxes. It’s the discipline.
Charlottesville High School Algebra Teacher Joseph Patterson’s policy on cellphone use is practically foolproof, he said. He issues an initial warning to his students prior to instructional time to put away their phones. Patterson adds an extra level of security to the warning by having students place their phones into a designated pencil pouch he personally bought for each desk.
The algebra teacher refuses to start class until every phone is put away and out of sight. He won’t even move, he said. It takes about two to three weeks at the start of each school year for all his students to get it together.
Since starting this method last year, Patterson said he can attribute actual, positive data showing his success. He said he’s helped some of his students pass standards of learning exams for the first time and maintain healthy grades in his class. He only had to issue about two to three demerits last year that led to in-school behavioral interventions — or an alternative to an in-school suspension that lasts a single period rather than an entire school day. His method, which was mirrored by other teachers, was the inspiration for City Schools to purchase the pencil boxes.
So when Patterson heard that many of his coworkers were struggling with corralling their students, it broke his heart. It was the first time he had heard this from his colleagues. But that heartbreak turned into confusion when many of the teachers in the cellphone committee were advocating for the Yondr pouches. He was able to crack the code, but why haven’t the other teachers been able to do the same?
“I was told one-on-one that I was able to find success because I am a person of color, therefore I can relate to my students a little bit more,” said Patterson, who teaches predominantly students of color. “And I’ve resented that notion because that’s not the case. There’s work we all have to do.”
Patterson said other teachers of color at Charlottesville High School have been told similar sentiments.
In general, many teachers of color don’t see the need for the pouches as they’re able to manage their student’s cell phone use without them, said Patterson and Josselyn, the English teacher who became a meme after breaking up a fight. Josselyn is white. White teachers, on the other hand, have largely supported the pouches, they say.
For those who want the pouches, they couldn’t figure out what to do after the initial verbal warning, said both teachers. As Patterson put it, these teachers do not have enough “willpower” to consistently discipline phone use. The pouches will allow them to have less to worry about so they can focus on teaching their classes.
“From my perspective, teaching is holistic. It’s not just algebra that I’m teaching here, this is life,” said Patterson. “As educators, we’re multi-tiered, we’re hitting different angles and perspectives. The capacity is vast, you’re not just learning about my content when you’re in my space.”
Josselyn, who supports the Yondr pouches, said the committee tried to compromise. Those for the Yondr pouches proposed using them as a third or fourth-tiered intervention strategy. But the company that produces the pouches advised the district that their pouches are designed to be used as a primary intervention method, not a punitive one. All students should use the pouches to avoid certain students and groups being singled out.
After that, the teachers were unable to land on an idea that a majority of them could agree on.
“I was told one-on-one that I was able to find success because I am a person of color, therefore I can relate to my students a little bit more. And I’ve resented that notion because that’s not the case. There’s work we all have to do.”Joseph Patterson, Charlottesville High School algebra teacher
“The teachers of color have said, ‘No, we don’t want pouches, we want everybody just to follow the rules and enforce them,'” said Josselyn. “Then as you get into the details of this long drawn-out process of analyzing whether, when and how a kid broke the rules, and it just became overwhelming.”
Despite the divide in opinion among teachers and school board members, City Schools decided to purchase the pouches on Aug. 8. Charlottesville High School, Buford Middle School and Lugo-McGinness Academy are the only schools that will have pouches, which are expected to come “later this year,” said Korman. She did not have a specific date. In the meantime, the school division will continue to implement its off and away policy.
Outside of school, parents will have to adjust to the new policy. Ben Castleman, parent of a sophomore at Charlottesville High School, believes the pros of the updated policy far outweigh the cons. If the district adopted a less severe policy in which students could use their devices during lunch and break periods, some students will find a way to pull them outside of those breaks, thus causing a domino effect with the students around them, he believes.
Castleman showcases his perspective in his own classroom. As an education policy professor at the University of Virginia, he implements his own cellphone ban within his classroom.
“If phones are sufficiently distracting to take away from learning for college students, then I believe they are even more harmful to the learning and engagement of younger students,” said Hastleman.
But not all parents are in favor of the ban.
Some parents fear that banning cellphones will make it harder for them to reach their children during emergencies, notably in the event of a potential school shooting. City Schools endured a slew of hoax calls in the previous school year — three occurring over a single month period — which led to parents getting upset at schools for what they felt was a lack of communication offered when the schools were placed on lockdown.
Other school districts have rescinded their ban on cellphones due to similar complaints. Brush School District, in Brush, Colorado, prohibited students from having their cellphones in school in 2021. A year later, the school district partially lifted the ban after parents flooded a community meeting with concerns about reaching their children and wanting them to have access to their phones. A similar event happened at the New York City Department of Education after Mayor Bill de Blasio rescinded the department’s cellphone ban because he wanted parents to have consistent access to their children during school hours.
But others believe that parents’ fears about reaching their children during emergencies do not override the harm cellphones cause students during school time.
Arnold Glass, a cognitive psychology professor at Rutgers University who specializes in the effects of cellphone use in the classroom, said that there are ways for parents to get in touch with their children without cellphones.
“When you call the school during an emergency, you had a formal system where they could buzz the phone of the teacher if you wanted to,” said Glass. “You just need someone who knows where the kids are, whether it’s the teachers or someone in the office who can contact them.”
“In my view, the solution to parents’ concerns is not to allow youth access to phones during the school day, but rather to ensure the City Schools have robust communication platforms to engage parents; that those platforms deploy updates in real time when crises arise; and that the schools have sufficient staff so that we as parents can reach someone and communicate messages to our students when necessary,” said Hastleman in an email to Charlottesville Tomorrow.
Glass said he believes that schools should not lose focus on the greater need for banning cellphones in class. He conducted a study in 2018 where he split a university class in two and allowed one group to use a personal device — including phones, tablets and laptops — during a semester class and prohibited the other group. The study concluded no significant change in pop quiz results between the two groups. However, he did find that college students who were allowed to use a personal device during class performed worse on end-of-term exams by half a grade than those who didn’t.
Memory retention and academic success are just a couple of the issues that arise from cellphone use in school. One research study found that students spent almost 21% of class time on average on their phone for non-educational purposes.
“Cellphones are hurting the entire academic environment for everyone in the room,” said Glass. “Even students who aren’t distracting themselves with their cellphone, their academic performance also gets worse. Humans are the most social animals and these things are attractive nuisances for all the people around them.”
City Schools says they’ve considered the concerns of parents who fear not being able to reach their children.
“We hear this concern, as well as the concern about being able to communicate with students about last-minute transportation changes, and the concern about whether the schools’ offices can handle a larger volume of family phone calls,” said spokesperson Korman.
But the school system is moving forward as a way to improve the success and experience of students and teachers in the classroom, officials say. It’s more than just the policy, Gurley said at the Aug. 3 meeting. Rather, it’s a way for them to encourage healthy practices that will benefit students and teachers, he said.
With the new update, that also means changes to the consequences given to students who break the rules. If a student is caught with their phone, they will have to relinquish their device to administration for the remainder of the day. If it happens again, the confiscated phone will be given to a parent or guardian. Students who are caught using their phone in inappropriate manners — such as recording fights — could potentially lose their privileges for an entire year.