Ed-Tech Policy

How Teachers’ Unions Are Involved in the Fight Against Cellphones in Class

By Madeline Will — April 24, 2024 7 min read
Tight cropped photo of someone typing on their cellphone with a notepad and pencil on the desk in front of them.
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Students’ use of cellphones in class has been a major source of frustration among teachers. Now, teachers’ unions are picking up the cause.

A small number of local teachers’ unions have brought the issue of phones in school to the bargaining table, asking for input into the district policy and, in some cases, outright calling for a phone ban. Meanwhile, at the state level, teachers’ unions often support legislation or policies that would ban or restrict devices in classrooms.

Typically, unions advocate for more autonomy for teachers, rather than blanket policies affecting the classroom. But students’ use of phones during instructional time has become a persistent challenge and pain point for teachers.

Nearly three-fourths of high school teachers and a third of middle school teachers say that students being distracted by cellphones is a major problem, according to a nationally representative survey by the Pew Research Center.

According to another national survey by the EdWeek Research Center, 24 percent of K-12 teachers thought cellphones should be completely banned on campus—a higher share than principals (21 percent) and district leaders (14 percent). Most educators were opposed to letting students use their phones in the classroom, with just 31 percent saying students should be able to use them during class time if the teacher allows it.

Cellphones at the bargaining table

Last year, the Wichita, Kan., teachers’ union proposed banning phones in class during contract negotiations. Mike Harris, the vice president of the United Teachers of Wichita, said the proposal came at the behest of high school educators in the district.

It was, he said, a departure from what’s typically discussed at the bargaining table.

“At the heart of it is this idea that teachers are asking the administration to take more control and take away freedom from classroom teachers about what goes on in their classroom,” Harris said. “It sort of seemed antithetical” to the traditional ideals of teachers’ unions.

But students’ cellphone use was starting to affect teachers’ working conditions. Teachers were frustrated with the inconsistencies that resulted from the nearly 47,000-student district not having a clear cellphone policy, he said.

For example, students would pull out their phones in class and say that another teacher let them use them. Most teachers agreed that a clear, consistently enforced policy would help their classroom management.

“The purpose of the union in this position was to be responsive to members in their needs,” Harris said.

Ultimately, the union’s proposal was not included in the contract, but it was the “catalyst” for the school board to revise its existing cellphone policy, Harris said.

Now, elementary students are required to shut down their devices and keep them out of sight during the school day; middle school students cannot use their phones at school unless permitted by an administrator; and high school students can only use their phones before and after school, during passing periods, and at lunch, unless an administrator gives permission for use during other times.

The new policy has been successful so far, Harris said, and it’s created clearer avenues for the union to have conversations with school leaders when challenges arise.

“It really is about collaborating, working together, and trying to find a solution that works” for everyone, he said.

Meanwhile, in Wooster, Ohio, the teachers’ union’s contract includes a provision that the school board will solicit the Wooster Education Association’s input regarding the current cellphone policy, and will consider the union’s input when updating it.

The current policy, last updated in 2012, allows students to use phones before and after school, during class transitions, at lunch, and at individual teachers’ discretion. The 3,300-student district is in the process of updating the policy to allow for additional phone restrictions, after conversations with the union, WEA President Brian Burdine said.

“Our members are aware of the roles cellphones play in providing distractions with social media and adding anxiety and stress with cyber-bullying,” Burdine wrote in an email. “It is important to our members to have a consistent and appropriate policy across the district and buildings (in comparison to an individual teacher policy).”

At the start of this school year, the district’s middle school implemented a new policy requiring students to turn their phones off and store them in lockers during the school day. The district’s high school is considering a policy that would prohibit cellphone use during academic time, Burdine said.

A “cellphone committee” of certified and classified staff from the middle and high schools is working with school administrators to hammer out the details, which will then be incorporated into the overall school board policy, Burdine said. The committee stemmed from a monthly meeting between union leaders and district administrators, he said.

The contract language “holds both sides accountable,” Burdine wrote. “Putting it in writing shows that both the association and the board will work together to create and implement policies and procedures that both staff and administration can support and uphold.”

An American Federation of Teachers spokesperson said he knows of at least one additional local affiliate that’s bargaining over a cellphone policy, but he declined to name the union or school district. AFT supports a policy that prohibits phones in the classroom while still allowing students to bring them to school, the spokesperson said.

Advocacy at the state level

Last year, Florida became the first state to crack down on phones in class, requiring school districts to prohibit students from using their devices during instructional time, except when directed by a teacher for educational purposes. This year, at least a half-dozen other states are pursuing similar policies.

In some cases, the state teachers’ unions have come out in vocal support.

Last month, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, signed legislation that requires districts to adopt policies banning communication devices—including phones and tablets—from classrooms. The Indiana State Teachers Association supported the bill.

“While we have some teachers who may make use of them in their classrooms for lessons or may allow their students to use their phones to look things up if they’re working on a project in class, more often than not, what we continue to find is they’re just problems for [teachers] because they become a distraction for students,” said ISTA President Keith Gambill.

Gambill said he’s heard from teachers that students receive a steady stream of notifications during class time—from incoming text messages to alerts that their favorite TikTok user has posted new content. The distraction is impeding students’ instructional progress, he said.

The new law does carve out some exceptions to the ban, including if the teacher allows devices for education purposes during class. And exactly how the policy is designed and implemented is up to individual districts.

Gambill said he appreciates that the law is not “one size fits all,” and that local teachers’ unions can now be involved in crafting the details. The policies need to be put into place at the start of the next school year.

“We absolutely have to have the classroom teachers help develop this,” Gambill said. “We need to make sure we’re part of developing the solutions here, so we’re not moving in the wrong direction—so you’re not creating a situation where I’m now distracted from doing the work I need to do, ... because I’m trying to police or enforce the policy.”

For example, he said, a policy where teachers are tasked with calling home for every infraction would add a new burden to teachers’ plates. Teachers also have the practical experience to come up with creative solutions for keeping phones out of students’ reach, he said.

Meanwhile, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, hosted a roundtable last month at Illing Middle School in Manchester, which restricted students’ phone use through magnetically sealed pouches. He invited Connecticut Education Association President Kate Dias and other state leaders to the roundtable to discuss such a policy’s benefits and challenges.

Lamont has called for more restrictions on students’ cellphone use in school. His office has supported legislation—still working its way through the state legislature—that would require the State Board of Education to develop and periodically revise a model policy on the use of phones and other electronic devices in schools.

The Connecticut Education Association wrote in a blog post about the roundtable that teachers spend “considerable time and energy redirecting students” when there are no cellphone restrictions. A statewide policy, which districts could tailor to meet local needs, “would go a long way toward easing that burden,” the union said.

“Phones can be a distraction, and they can get in the way of learning and motivation,” Dias said in the CEA post. “We’ve learned over time that restricting children’s cell phone access, particularly during the school day, makes a lot of sense.”

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