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Unveiling of cell phone ban creates buzz at Fredericksburg City School Board meeting

by | Jun 11, 2024 | ALLFFP, Fredericksburg, Schools & Education

For more than two hours on Monday night, speakers and slideshows warned the Fredericksburg City School Board of the deleterious effects of cell phones on learning outcomes, attention and mental health. 

Then, during a presentation from Deputy Superintendent Matt Eberhardt on the topic, school board member Matt Rowe felt a buzz and looked down.  

“Tonight, the communications team is going to release a section on the website,” Eberhardt said.  

“They just did,” interrupted Rowe with a laugh. “I saw, ‘Cell Phone Ban from FCPS’ and was like, what’s this?’” 

Fittingly, the distracting notification came from the FCPS communications team, which sought to pre-empt questions by publishing preliminary information about the proposed cell phone ban midway through Monday’s meeting. 

“You get a Yondr bag first,” school board chair Jarvis Bailey quipped to Rowe, referring to the magnetic storage devices being considered by the school division as it plans to transition to becoming phone-free by the start of the new school year in August.  

During the public comment session prior to Eberhardt’s presentation, several parents spoke in favor of a ban. More than one framed it as an issue of supporting the district’s beleaguered teachers. 

Holly Clark, a city resident who said she has three children in city schools, said that her son’s teachers have left the district in each of the past five years.  

“My son is in fifth grade, and he doesn’t have any teachers to come back and visit,” Clark said. “Adults who were there for him didn’t feel like this was a place they were comfortable being and left.” 

“This is a gesture you could make to the community to say that you support teachers and say this is something they won’t have to fight at the start of every one of their classes.” 

Heather Danmeyer, an FCPS parent as well as a high school teacher in a neighboring district, said that she’s seen cell phone usage exacerbate existing learning gaps among students. 

“As a high school teacher, the school district I work in does not have a strong cell phone policy, and I can see the harm that it does to our kids… If you’re a struggling reader, you’re not going to want to read a biology textbook, because TikTok is always going to be more interesting.” 

Eberhardt started his presentation by outlining the district’s existing policy on cell phones. Currently, phones must be turned off and stored during the school day with the exception of specific times. Students were permitted to use their cell phones during breakfast and lunch times and only in the cafeteria or commons area. Use — with headphones — is also allowed on buses.

“We’ve found there was some success to that,” Eberhardt said. “We didn’t see as many phones in the hallways or in the classrooms. However, students still used their phones, and they used them in the classrooms and in the hallways.” 

Eberhardt noted that since FCPS last considered the issue a year ago, California, Florida and Indiana have all passed laws banning cell phones in schools while several other states are considering similar legislation.  

Much of the conversation between school board members on Monday night centered on Yondr bags, a proprietary system that Eberhardt said “has a corner on the market.”  

According to the company’s website, Yondr was founded in 2014 to provide “phone-free spaces.” The system begins working when someone steps into a phone-free space (a school entrance, for example) and places their device in a magnetic Yondr pouch. “To use your phone at any time, step outside the phone-free zone and tap your pouch on an unlocking base,” the site explains. 

It would cost FCPS $18 per student to purchase the storage devices.  

“I would be the student who would forget to unlock my phone and bring the bag and the phone home and then get upset,” said school board member Malvina Rollins Kay (Ward 4). “There’s going to be issues.” 

School board member Jennifer Boyd (Ward 3) raised the question of whether staff would be able to have their phones during school hours. 

“I don’t see how we can role model for kids saying you can’t have a phone but I can,” Eberhardt said. “I remember in the old days teaching, we said you couldn’t drink in the classroom but I had my cup of coffee. That doesn’t make any sense.” 

Eberhardt said he expects to receive a deluge of feedback as the policy is finalized. Judging by the 66 likes and 63 shares on the FCPS Facebook post from Monday night, he’s right.

The school board will hold a special meeting on June 25 at 5 p.m to adopt its FY2025 budget.

“We believe we want to go to a phone-free pre-K to 12 place,” Eberhardt said. “How we get there is going to involve a lot of smart people sitting around a table trying to figure out all this stuff… School starts in August, so we need to do something.” 

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