Youngkin orders school divisions to develop cellphone policies

by | Jul 9, 2024 | ALLFFP, Fredericksburg, Schools & Education, Spotsylvania, Stafford

As Fredericksburg area public school officials grapple with how to handle cellphones on school grounds, Gov. Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order on Tuesday mandating divisions establish cellphone-free policies in K-12 education. 

Executive Order No. 33 directs the Virginia Department of Education to initiate public engagement efforts involving parents, teachers, students, school leaders and community stakeholders to collaborate and develop policies and procedures that establish age-appropriate restriction or elimination of cellphone use during instructional time. 

Protocols to allow parents to contact their children in emergency situations are also to be established. 

Youngkin announced that the VDOE and the Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services will make a combined $500,000 available to support implementation of the initiative which he called a mental health and safety issue. 

“This essential action will promote a healthier and more focused educational environment where every child is free to learn,” Youngkin said. “Creating cellphone and social media-free educational environments in Virginia will benefit students, parents and educators.” 

Youngkin said in a press release that the executive order establishes a goal to protect the health and safety of students by limiting the amount of time they are exposed to “addictive cellphones and social media.” He said the order also eliminates classroom distractions and launches a dialogue between parents, students, educators and stakeholders that will enable them to create effective policies and procedures. 

Fredericksburg City Public Schools passed a policy regarding cellphone use last week. Stafford County banned cellphones in its schools, as did King George. Caroline is currently exploring a policy, while the Spotsylvania School Board instructed its staff to investigate the issue at its meeting on Monday. 

The executive order directs VDOE to publish draft guidance by Aug. 15. Final guidance for local school divisions to adopt cellphone-free policies must be in place by September, with plans to be adopted at the local level by Jan. 1, 2025. 

The order does not prevent school divisions from adopting a policy ahead of the given date. The VDOE must facilitate listening sessions and other stakeholder engagement opportunities over the next six weeks. It is instructed to gather feedback of best practices and receive input for the draft guidance. 

“Cellphones and digital media have caused preteens and teens to disconnect from the real world, have increased mental health challenges, and have caused significant disruption in the important daily learning opportunities in their classrooms,” Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Coons said. “Parents and teachers understand the importance of creating cellphone-free education in our schools so that students can focus on instruction and learning during the school day.” 

The executive order comes one day after the Spotsylvania School Board began discussing the issue, with Vice Chair Nicole Cole noting that other localities in the area have already begun developing procedures. 

Interim Superintendent Kelly Guempel said he will compile a report from middle and high school principals on their thoughts on the issue. He also planned to gather community input. 

“It’s one of those topics that’s guaranteed to bring up some emotion,” Guempel said. “There are proponents on both sides of the aisle. There will be some rich discussion all the way around, I’m sure.” 

Cole requested that Guempel establish a committee of community members to explore the issue. Chair Lorita Daniels advised that Guempel solicits input from school leaders before involving the community. 

“I’m afraid you may get a lot of input at the very beginning, and we don’t want that just yet,” Daniels said. 

Lee Hill District representative Lisa Phelps, who was on vacation and did not attend the meeting Monday, said before the executive order that she was hopeful a “happy medium” could be reached. Phelps said she is concerned about student safety. She also hopes teacher cellphone use is addressed to limit hostility between teachers and students. 

“You have many teachers who are 25 years old, and they come from the same generation [that uses cellphones regularly],” Phelps said. 

Courtland District Board member Carol Medawar expressed hope that Spotsylvania would be able to learn from the surrounding localities before implementing a policy but that will not be the case. 

Youngkin said the executive order is “critical” to address youth chronic health conditions such as depression and anxiety that he believes stems in part from extensive social media and cellphone use. His release noted that children spend an average of 4.8 hours per day on social media and that recent studies indicate that more than three hours a day of screen time doubles the risk of poor mental health for adolescents. The U.S. Centersff for Disease Control also noted that suicide rates have increased 167% for girls since 2010 and 91% for boys in the same timeframe. 

“The data is clear, and it is time for Virginians to come together to address the damage of social media and screens to healthy childhoods,” Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera said. “Government cannot be the sole solution to this crisis; school communities – especially parents and teachers – must work together to discuss and develop common sense approaches to limit screen time, prioritize open channels of communication and re-establish norms that reinforce healthy and vibrant learning opportunities.” 

In addition to stakeholder engagement, some of the key elements of the executive order include the development of a clear definition of “cellphone free education,” reporting and data collection to note how student outcomes were impacted by the new policy, and collaboration with health agencies to disseminate information on the impact of cellphone use on academic performance and mental health. 

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