Ed-Tech Policy

6 Ways Schools Are Managing Students’ Cellphone Use

By Lauraine Langreo — April 25, 2024 5 min read
A cell phone sits on a student's desk during a 9th grade honors English class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A flurry of school districts across the country are tightening cellphone restrictions, because they believe students’ misuse of the devices has negatively affected their behavior and ability to learn.

In 2015, 66 percent of schools in the United States prohibited non-academic use of cellphones during school hours, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2020, that percentage had jumped to 77 percent.

Many educators blame students’ cellphone use for being the top distraction in schools and classrooms. The constant use of the devices has also been linked to students’ worsening mental health.

The issue has caught the attention of federal and state policymakers, too. Some states—such as California, Florida, Indiana, and Tennessee—have passed laws allowing schools to restrict cellphone use. A handful of other states are considering passing similar laws. Congressional lawmakers have also introduced legislation that would require a federal study on the effects of cellphone use on students’ mental health and academic performance.

Liz Kolb, a clinical professor of education technologies and teacher education at the University of Michigan, said it’s unlikely that all 50 states will pass laws restricting students’ cellphone use, “but we’re seeing a lot more [movement] at the individual school level, where they’re trying to figure out policies that make sense [for their communities].”

At the district level, these restrictions vary widely. Some districts restrict student cellphone use anywhere and any time during the school day. Some allow use of the devices during lunch and in the hallways. And others haven’t placed any restrictions at all, often because of parent and student pushback.

Even in districts where there’s a ban, “there’s a lot of nuance” in how schools are addressing it, Kolb said. “In order for a full school ban to be effective, you really have to have strong leadership supporting the staff in enforcing it.”

Some of those nuances include exceptions for students who have a documented need to have their digital devices for health reasons, such as checking blood glucose levels if a student has diabetes. Teachers also have the flexibility to allow students to use their cellphones in class if they are needed for instructional purposes.

Here are six different policy approaches districts are putting in place to address concerns about student cellphone use:

1. Cellphones are restricted for all students, regardless of grade level

In Florida’s Orange County district, all students are prohibited from using their cellphones and other wireless communication devices, such as smartwatches, during school hours—meaning from the first bell to the dismissal bell, these devices must be silenced and put away in their bags. If a student is caught using a phone during the school day, the device will be confiscated and returned to the student at the end of the day. Depending on the circumstances of the violation, a student could also get detention or be suspended.

Flint schools in Michigan also prohibit all students, regardless of grade level, from using cellphones or other personal electronic devices. If a student is caught using a phone, it will be confiscated and returned to the student’s parent or caretaker.

Some districts provide technological solutions, such as pouches, to lock and store students’ phones during the school day. In other districts, educators have found creative ways to separate students from their phones, such as using over-the-door shoe holders where students place their phones during class.

2. Cellphones restricted only for elementary students, more flexible for middle and high school students

While restrictions on the use of cellphones and other two-way communication devices exist for all students in the Wauwatosa district in Wisconsin, there are more flexible rules for middle and high school students. Cellphones are prohibited all day for elementary students, but middle and high school students can use their phones before and after school, between class periods, during lunch, and in free periods. Teachers and principals have discretion for imposing consequences for misuse.

See Also

Close up of elementary or middle school white girl using a mobile phone in the classroom.
E+

3. Cellphones are prohibited for elementary and middle school students, but more flexible for high school students

Elementary and middle school students in Virginia’s Rockingham district are prohibited from using personal electronic devices during the school day, while high school students may use their devices during lunch, study hall, advisory periods if permitted by a teacher and principal, and in between classes.

4. Cellphones are restricted only in classrooms, locker rooms, and bathrooms

Other districts, such as Richmond schools in Wisconsin, have restrictions on cellphone use only in certain areas of schools, such as classrooms, locker rooms, and bathrooms—to prevent bullying or sharing of inappropriate images, according to some district policies.

5. Cellphones restricted only in classrooms

Some restrictions are centered around classroom time only and allow students to use their phones outside of the classroom. In the Brush school district in Colorado, for instance, students aren’t allowed to have their phones out during instructional hours but can use them any other time. If a student is caught with a phone when they’re not allowed to have it, parents can either come to school to collect the phone or they can let the school keep the phone until the end of the day.

See Also

Students' cell phones are collected by school administration before the start of spring break at California City Middle School in California City, Calif., on March 11, 2022.
Students' cellphones are collected by school administration before the start of spring break at California City Middle School in California City, Calif., on March 11, 2022.
Damian Dovarganes/AP
School Climate & Safety Why These Parents Want Cellphones Banned in Schools
Elizabeth Heubeck, November 2, 2023
3 min read

6. Cellphone restrictions are left up to each school

There are also districts, such as Meriden in Connecticut and Minnetonka in Minnesota, that don’t have districtwide restrictions, but instead have guidelines that schools can choose to follow.

For instance, in Meriden, the guidelines recommend elementary students keep their phones in their bags the whole school day; middle school students keep their phones in their lockers but can use them during lunch; and to let high school students have access to their phones all day but they must be turned off and out of sight during class time.

Other districts, such as Pawtucket in Rhode Island, allow principals or teachers to implement their own school or classroom rules around cellphones, as long as there’s a clear plan for allowing students to use them in case of emergencies.

Events

Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Roundtable Webinar: Why We Created a Portrait of a Graduate
Hear from three K-12 leaders for insights into their school’s Portrait of a Graduate and learn how to create your own.
Content provided by Otus

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Ed-Tech Policy One School Leader Banned Cellphones, the Other Embraced Them. What Worked?
Two principals describe their dramatically different policies on cellphones and how they are working.
7 min read
An illustration of a wallpaper of mobile phones, some off, some turned over with stickers on the back covers and some missing with just an outline where they once were.
iStock/Getty
Ed-Tech Policy Biden Signs TikTok Ban Into Law. What That Means for Schools
Restricting the platform probably won't alleviate schools’ social media woes.
6 min read
The TikTok app logo appears in Tokyo, on Sept. 28, 2020.
The TikTok app logo appears in Tokyo, on Sept. 28, 2020.
Kiichiro Sato/AP
Ed-Tech Policy How Teachers' Unions Are Involved in the Fight Against Cellphones in Class
Could cellphone bans be the next big issue at the bargaining table?
7 min read
Tight cropped photo of someone typing on their cellphone with a notepad and pencil on the desk in front of them.
iStock/Getty
Ed-Tech Policy Q&A Need an AI Policy for Your Schools? This District Used ChatGPT to Craft One
The Peninsula School District in Washington state was one of the first school systems in the country to craft AI policy guidance.
5 min read
a person and a robot study a cylinder filled with AI elements
Kathleen Fu for Education Week