Teaching to nobody: The aftermath of MCPS’ failed cell phone policy

March 29, 2024, 11:24 a.m. | By Sudhish Swain | 3 weeks, 3 days ago

One semester later, the controversial and difficult-to-enforce cell phone policy proved to be a massive flop around the county, especially at Blair

Unless you were looking for it, you probably wouldn’t have noticed the plastic pouches hanging off desks in many classrooms. According to the MCPS Regulation on Personal Mobile Devices (PMDs), called the COG-RA, these pouches, and the white plastic boxes, are where our phones are supposed to be kept during class. But it didn’t take long for students to stop listening to, and for many teachers to stop enforcing, this policy. What went so wrong?

The MCPS COG-RA, revised in May 2022*, says that “high school students may use PMDs before and after the student day and during the student lunch periods. Instructional use may be permitted at the teacher’s discretion … PMDs may be confiscated by school authorities if they are used in a manner inconsistent with Montgomery County Board of Education policies or MCPS regulations or rules.” 

The MCPS Office for Strategic Initiatives led this revision in collaboration with a COG-RA taskforce and the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations (MCCPTA). Previously, principals dictated cell phone usage policies within their schools. According to Lisa Cline, former chair and current MCCPTA’s Safe Technology Committee member, “[the policy] was pretty loose. It was pretty much you can use them at your school's discretion,” Cline says.

To help facilitate a more productive and effective learning environment, MCPS should give teachers the option to take a student’s cell phone away if they feel like the phone is interrupting a student’s ability to focus and/or a teacher’s ability to teach effectively. It’s our responsibility as students to come to school to learn, and it’s our teachers’ responsibility to make sure that happens, even if it means taking away a phone.

Gail Ravnitzky, chair of the MCCPTA’s Technology Committee, has three kids in MCPS and is a substitute teacher in MCPS elementary schools. Her position gives her unique access to the perspectives of parents and teachers in the county, and both groups have expressed their concerns about growing cell phone use starting from the Elementary level in MCPS.

According to Ravnitzky, the teacher shortage crisis, which has hit MCPS particularly hard, has had a lot to do with the struggles educators face when trying to gain the attention of a class so heavily reliant on their cell phones. “Every day, there’s a bunch of teachers that go ‘I don’t want to do this anymore…I’m competing with the cell phones,” Ravnitzky says. Blair Assistant Principal Aaron Bernstein agrees: smartphones can’t be competed with. “There have been a number of anecdotal observations or even some studies which say: We can't compete with your cell phone,” Bernstein says. This discontent has shown itself through over 164,000 requests for short-term substitute teacher requests in the 2022-2023 school year. 

Cline also believes that a large reason why teachers are quitting is because of the distractions phones cause. “I have a hunch that allowing personal electronics into the classroom is one of the reasons that teachers are quitting,” she says.

The biggest issue that teachers struggle with is enforcement: with the ever growing class sizes and decreasing attention spans, it is understandably difficult for teachers to hold their class's attention for upwards of 90 minutes. “In spirit, the revised policy is a good one. But the execution and enforcement have been lackluster. With such a big district and so many independent sort of quadrants of the county it seems especially at the high school level, all the principals are doing their own thing,” Cline says. 

According to a 2023 Common Sense Media study with data from 203 11-17-year-olds in the US, “97% of participants used their phones during school hours for a median of 43 minutes (ranging from less than one minute to six and a half hours).” Their study also found that 50% of participants used TikTok daily, for a median usage of one hour and 52 minutes. A separate meta-analysis of the effects of smartphone addiction on learning found that “skills and cognitive abilities that students need for academic success and learning can be negatively affected by excessive and addictive phone use.”

Another option proposed by many teachers and parents is outright banning cell phones, which “may not work. There are legitimate reasons why parents want their kids to have cell phones at school,” Ravintzky says. This is a valid point—many parents feel uncomfortable without the ability to contact their students at a moment's notice through text or cell phone. Especially at a school riddled with bomb threats and violence in recent years, too big of a risk is taken by eliminating instant communication between a student and their parent.

A letter Cline received in April 2020 tells the story of a teacher who struggled with her students’ cell phone usage during class time. “I got a handwritten note to my home address from a teacher,” Cline says. “It wrote: ‘I applaud you for doing the work you're doing. I can't stick around and wait for change to happen. I'm leaving. I'm retiring.’”

A letter from an MCPS teacher returning to the United States after 22 years of teaching abroad, expressing her feelings on student cell phone use during class. Photo courtesy of Lisa Cline.

After Cline reached out to the teacher, who had been teaching out of the United States for 22 years, she said, “I just can't do it anymore. The administration, more importantly, is not supporting me when I go to them and say, I need help. “These phones are making my job incredibly depressing and null and void. The kids probably don't even know who I am.” 

Click here to see another letter written to Cline from an MCPS teacher, M.

On Jan. 24, 2024, Ravnitzky testified in front of the Montgomery County Board of Education on behalf of the MCCPTA with three ways to move away from MCPS’ current digital-focused means of teaching. One of her solutions to the cell phone use problem was phone pouches.

In Room 313, a calculator pouch is installed for students to keep their cellphones during classtime Photo courtesy of Gabe Marra-Perrault.

Some teachers at Blair, like Psychology teacher Julia Smrek and Science Resource Teacher Summer Roark, have already incorporated this means of keeping students off their phones during class.

For Smrek, cell phones have disrupted her classes for many years. “Cell phones have always been a problem,” she says. “After we came back from COVID, I got really tired of constantly saying ‘put your phone away.’ I just didn't want to deal with it anymore. So the following year, I bought these little bags that were big enough to put phones in…The kids had to come in, put the phones in the bag, and put the bag inside the desk.” The desks face away from the students to deter them from removing the pouches and using their phones during class.

For this school year, Blair’s administration bought phone pouches and sleeves for teachers to use. Promoting teacher regulation of cell phone use in class is a step in the right direction for teachers who feel as though cell phones have stolen students from their classrooms.

Not only should it be well within a teacher’s rights to confiscate a cell phone if they feel like it is disrupting their ability to teach, but Security must also be an available resource if a teacher doesn’t feel comfortable confiscating a student’s phone. A teacher may also feel uncomfortable confiscating a cell phone from a student. Calling Security, who are trained for these situations, would allow the teacher to enforce the policy while staying safe themselves.

According to Bernstein, though, escalating the situation by calling security should be avoided as much as possible. “When we talk about [Security], what we're really talking about is escalating the authority that's involved.” 

Unfortunately, the truth is that most teachers are spending more time policing rather than teaching. According to Smrek, phones take too much classroom instruction time. “The phones are not giving students the opportunity to learn. If they had a choice, they'd be on that phone the entire class period … You have to teach them how to stay off their phones, and there have to be consequences if they don't,” Smrek says.

Freshman Nahome Ayalew has seen both the good and the bad in cell phones. “A lot of students are getting distracted… but it’s helpful in some situations. Some people don’t have Chromebooks, and a lot of teachers don’t have Chromebook carts, so instead of telling students to go out by themselves to another classroom, they could just let them use their phones.” The county needs to do a better job at mandating that certain assignments must be available in a physical, paper format. Research has shown that taking notes and doing assignments on paper is far better for retention than doing it on a computer.

By giving the teachers the ability to confiscate student cell phones when necessary, with the backing of both Security and administration, MCPS can help both teachers feel more in control of their classroom and help students feel more in tune with school. 

*The COG-RA was recently updated on January 26, 2024. See the differences here.

Last updated: April 2, 2024, 1:43 p.m.

Sudhish Swain. Hi! I'm Sudhish (he/him) and I'm one of the sports editors as well as a videographer. I often record videos at games, write beats, post recaps/galleries/videos on our social medias, and more! Besides SCO, I love running, listening to music, and learning new languages! More »

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