City seeks tools to ‘reduce’ cell-phone use by students

Boston school officials are looking for a tool to “measurably reduce” middle and high school students’ cell phone use during the school day in order to limit distractions and cut down on social media-influenced behavior. One key feature would be the ability to focus on specific grades.

But BPS is not looking for a specific solution, with officials emphasizing goals and asking for vendors to come up with “innovative solutions,” according to a request for proposals issued last week. 

“It’s letting the ‘how’ and ‘what’ be driven out of the ‘why,’ said Ann Walsh, a Dorchester parent and former candidate for city council. “It’s a much better way to go about things rather than starting with the solution and shoehorning it back in. I hope that the vendor that’s chosen follows that design path, rather than having a predetermined solution.”

Said BPS spokesperson Max Baker in a statement: “Many of our schools currently utilize cell phone usage reduction programs with great success. This request will enable other schools within the district to utilize this technology if they believe it is the right course of action for their individual communities.”

For her part, Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang noted that “cell phones can definitely be a distraction for students, particularly if there aren’t clear expectations and protocols in place. We are hopeful that BPS will solicit input from all stakeholders including educators, families, and student,s as these potential guidelines and programs are developed. We look forward to reviewing details as they become available.”

The proposal calls for a “solution” that could ultimately affect more than 20,000 students in grades 7 to 12. While it does not list an expected price, the request notes the value of the contract will be based around training, implementation, and support at 40 schools from April 2024 through June 2027.

The vendor will first conduct a pilot plan in certain schools chosen by the city and get feedback from teachers, administrators, and students before anything is rolled out across the system. The final plan “must be able to be implemented in both entire schools and only specific grades,” but will be rolled out as schools request it, according to the proposal.

Walsh said she supported different measures for different grade levels. “You shouldn’t have the same solution for a seventh grader as a twelfth grader. Older kids get more autonomy and have different needs, and they have more abilities to make decisions about themselves. You can’t have kids about to enter adulthood that you’re still controlling for six hours a day.”

She added, “I’d love to see a really thoughtful process that engages educators, kids, and families around how we can do that in a way that makes sense developmentally and realistically and not suck up teachers’ time with policies that are hard to enforce.”

Earlier this month, Brockton school officials introduced a policy requiring all students at Brockton High School to lock up their cell phones in magnetized Yondr pouches during the school day. The policy was backed by staff members and had gone through several drafts, reported. The school has been the site of frequent fights and brawls, which students often film on their phones.

The BPS request says the program will be evaluated in part by whether it reduces disciplinary incidents and improves academic performance and describes how BPS wants to “promote digital responsibility” through restricting cell phone use “to educate students on the responsible use of technology and encourage healthy digital habits that prioritize academic success and social interaction as well as discouraging potentially negative social-media driven behaviors.”

On a final note, the proposal said the goal is to “safeguard student well-being by mitigating the negative effects of excessive screen time and promoting face-to-face interaction among peers and educators.”

Walsh said it was “great” that BPS was looking at limiting bad behavior driven by social media but she wants to make sure any plan accounts for communications between parents and students despite limited cell phone use.

“The biggest fear I have is around issues of knowing a student is safe when something is going on at the school. It is really terrifying to be a parent and to hear something is happening at your kid’s school and not be able to reach your kid,” She added, “It doesn’t mean we should just let phones be going off all day but be really thoughtful about how we manage communication with families so that we still feel like we’re getting the information we need, whether it’s in an emergency or just day to day logistics.”

The city plans to select a vendor in the next week. After the plan is up and running, the vendor will collect data on usage patterns and compliance, as well as feedback from students and teachers, and examine whether academic performance has improved.

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