Ed-Tech Policy

What Happened When This District Did an About-Face on Cellphones

By Arianna Prothero — June 12, 2024 3 min read
A student takes notes on their cell phone during class at Bel Air High School in Bel Air, Md., on Jan. 25, 2024.
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After years of allowing middle school students in Worthington, Ohio, to have cellphones in class, the district reversed course in the spring of 2022.

It banned cellphones from classrooms. Middle schoolers must keep their cellphones in their lockers but are allowed to have them during lunch and other breaks.

The policy has been a success, says Trent Bowers, the superintendent of the 10,000-student district located in a suburb of Columbus.

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Laura Baker/Education Week via canva

But he argues that cellphones are only part of a larger problem that the district is grappling with: technology has drastically altered parents’ expectations about how on-demand their children and children’s teachers should be during the school day.

Education Week spoke with Bowers about that challenge and the evolution of his district’s cellphone policy. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you change your policy on cellphones in middle school so drastically?

Trent Bowers

There was just a real feeling that our middle school students needed to be away from devices so they could interact with each other, that it was really having a negative impact on our middle school students. Those schools worked with parents and made that change, and parents were really supportive of that change at the time.

That was our evolution. We went six or seven years where we were staunchly “no, we’re not gonna ban these, that our kids need to learn to [use] them. This is the world they’re going live in. They’re going to need to learn when to put them away, how to deal with it.”

We made a shift at the middle school, less of a shift to the high school, and maybe that’s where we end up. Maybe that’s the right gradual release. We’re not quite sure yet.

At the high school level, you allow teachers to set the policy each day using a red, yellow, or green dot to communicate to students what the cellphone policy is for that class period. How did you come up with this approach?

Before we instituted our red, yellow, green system, we were hearing from teachers that they were really concerned about cellphones. I met with our teacher union leadership, and I said, “Why don’t you guys create a plan and then bring that plan to me?” They met together with teachers for a couple months and eventually came back and said, “Our teachers feel very differently: some really feel like they want students to be able to access those devices in the classroom, and some feel like they shouldn’t.”

See also

Mitchell Rutherford, who taught biology at Sahuaro High School in Tucson, Ariz., left the profession due, in part, to students' cell phone usage. Here, pictured at Finger Rock Trailhead in Tucson on June 8, 2024.
Mitchell Rutherford, who taught biology at Sahuaro High School in Tucson, Ariz., left the profession due, in part, to students' cell phone usage. Here, pictured at Finger Rock Trailhead in Tucson on June 8, 2024.
Cassidy Araiza for Education Week

We’re in a reasonably good place with cellphones. It’s not something I’m hearing about from teachers or families. We feel like we’re in a good place at our elementary, and middle. High school feels pretty stable. Smartphones [are] the challenge of our generation, right? We’re all trying to figure out what is the right path for the future. And I’m not sure that any of us know the answer.

Parents often text and email their kids during the school day. Has this been a problem in your schools?

Our parents, sometimes grandparents, they’ve just gotten used to being in touch with their kids all day long. It’s often the case where a child just shows up at the office and says, “My mom’s coming to pick me up.” A previous generation mom would’ve called the office. Now, full transparency, I’m a dad in the school district. I’ve texted my kids during the school day, just like, ‘don’t forget to pick this up,’ ‘don’t forget to do this.’

We [as a society] are in constant communication. Do I think for some of our parents, it would make them really nervous for that to stop being the case? I think it would. But that doesn’t mean that we couldn’t come up with a new normal to say, “Hey, during these hours we all get used to not having that communication.”

Has this constant communication between students and their families risen to the level of distraction for your teachers?

Every teacher would tell you a story of a cellphone [vibrating] in class and it not being another student who’s messaging, but it being a parent or a grandparent.

But that constant connection isn’t just related to cellphones. It’s being able to email people all day long and check grades all the time. And how quickly does a teacher put a grade in versus another teacher? We expect things to be instant in all areas. I definitely think from a teacher standpoint, this has really become a lot [to deal with].

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