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Policies on cell phone bans in NYC schools create confusion for students and a challenging learning environment for teachers to manage.

Lax NYC school cell phone policies put burden on teachers, leave students confused


The patchwork of policies not only between schools but within buildings creates confusion for students and a challenging learning environment for teachers to manage

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat. Sign up for their newsletters at ckbe.at/newsletters.

On its face, the cell phone policy at Forest Hills High School seems clear: Phones cannot be used in school and must be turned off during the day, unless a teacher allows them as part of a lesson.

In practice, the picture is a lot more complicated.

Some teachers create their own rules, from zero-tolerance approaches like confiscation to more relaxed policies like allowing phones unless a class devolves into chaos, according to Stephan Menasche, a senior at the 3,400-student school in Queens.

The inconsistencies lead to students testing boundaries and giving into the irresistible pull of their phones to watch or create TikToks, text friends, or listen to music.

“There are classes where I’m not using my phone, and they’re interesting. It’s great because I don’t have to get distracted by the notifications or whatever,” Menasche said. “But sometimes the classes are really boring, and I would rather be on my phone.”

Forest Hills is one of hundreds of schools across New York City that instituted cell phone bans after the Education Department dropped the citywide prohibition in March 2015, a move that gave principals responsibility to create their own approaches. As Gov. Kathy Hochul mulls a statewide ban of cell phones in schools, the reality on the ground in New York City illustrates the complexities of such a large-scale effort.

Dozens of responses to a Chalkbeat survey on schools and cell phones revealed that the patchwork of policies not only between schools but within buildings creates confusion for students and a challenging learning environment for teachers to manage. NYC schools Chancellor David Banks told parent leaders on Thursday that he’s spoken to “hundreds” of principals, and overwhelmingly, they’re asking for a citywide mandate.

Enforcement of bans is a growing struggle, the survey showed, as phones have become more pervasive — at younger and younger ages. Storage of phones can be expensive, at a time when schools are seeing budget cuts. And surprisingly, parents are often the main sources of calls and texts to children.

If officials do impose a blanket ban, the details could play a key role in whether officials can achieve their goal of reconnecting students to classwork.

City officials don’t track how many schools have bans, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach that schools are using to curb student cell phone access. Some have bought Yondr pouches, cloth carrying cases for phones that are locked from morning to dismissal. Some schools collect phones before first period and place them in cubbies. Others have general bans but let kids keep phones. Most schools have tiered discipline policies: A first strike might result in a warning; a third strike might involve confiscating a phone and calling a parent to pick it up.

At schools that don’t have a formal system for collecting phones or using pouches, educators say they spend a great deal of time seizing, monitoring, safeguarding, and returning phones. One Brooklyn high school health teacher who replied to the survey lamented how phones were cutting into his ability to build relationships with students.

Teachers are “in a position of watchdog and cajoler in order to get students to part with their device,” said the teacher, who requested anonymity for privacy reasons. “I can’t remember the last time the first words out of my mouth are: ‘Hello! Welcome to class. It’s fantastic to see you in school today.’”

But even some critics of phones understand why students want to hold onto their devices. Students may have part-time jobs or caretaking responsibilities in their families. And in the wake of high-profile school shootings, some parents feel safer being able to reach their children at any time.

“This is a complex host of issues that will not be solved just by ‘changing a policy,’” the Brooklyn health teacher said. “In the end, unless there is a mandate that comes with funding, personnel, education, and culturally-competent training, the policy is only on paper.”

Voices grow louder for addressing cell phones in schools

Hochul’s call for a ban comes as a groundswell of experts and educators are speaking out that the current state of phone access in school isn’t working. Several other states are considering school cell phone bans, following such policies in Florida and Indiana.

Mayor Eric Adams has been raising the alarm about teen cell phone and social media use, with the city’s Health Department issuing an advisory that encourages caregivers to delay giving children a smartphone until 14. Earlier this year, New York City joined other municipalities in filing a lawsuit against five leading social media companies.

The national conversation around the damage caused by cell phones and social media is also ramping up. New York University Stern School of Business social psychologist and New York City public school parent Jonathan Haidt’s book “Anxious Generation” made the New York Times bestseller list, and grassroots activism is gaining traction across the country, led by New York City-based groups like Moms Against Media Addiction.

At a town hall in Brownsville, Brooklyn, last month, Banks told parents he read Haidt’s book and has been asking principals for input on the issue.

“All of them have said, ‘I agree. I think we should take the phones.’ They are distracting. They’re presenting all kinds of problems,” Banks said. He described students using phones to arrange after-school fights or parents calling in the middle of math class, asking kids to pick up groceries on the way home.

At a visit to Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, Banks said he observed the school’s pouch system and heard from students who initially bristled at the policy saying they’ve come to appreciate how it’s encouraged them to talk to each other more.

“You all gave us a chance for our brains to breathe,” Banks recounted a student telling him.

A Brownsville principal told Banks that after her school started collecting phones every morning, the number of safety-related incidents dropped precipitously.

Chalkbeat’s survey results back up Banks’ concerns. Teachers are feeling “humiliated” as they’re ignored in their classrooms, as one respondent told Chalkbeat. Another wrote that the phones enable students to “bring the drama of outside life (friends, family) into the classroom which used to be a place where they could get away from such things.” Others described how the devices have fostered more cheating and plagiarism during class.

Dramatic changes 10 years after NYC lifts school cell phone ban

Much of the current climate around cell phones and social media was unimaginable 10 years ago, when former Mayor Bill de Blasio lifted the cell phone ban in New York City schools. He said he did so in large part because of the inequities around the policy. Students were able to take their phones to school and keep them in their bags — unless the school had metal detectors. Those schools, which largely served Black and Latino students from low-income families, saw a cottage industry spring up around carts and small businesses charging kids $1 or more a day to store phones.

Back then, parents weren’t calling their kids as often. Teens weren’t widely using social media apps like Instagram and TikTok, and they didn’t have easy-to-hide AirPods.

Some educators saw an immediate shift once cell phones were allowed in schools.

Anita Pinto, a high school speech therapist in Manhattan, remembers that kids would often play Uno when they had free time. As soon as de Blasio lifted the ban, they stopped taking out the card game.

“Immediately after, they were like zombies,” she said. Things became more extreme after the pandemic, when students became accustomed to 24/7 access to devices in their homes.

One time recently when Pinto entered a classroom, she saw a student with a phone out, which was against the school’s rules. He refused to put it away when she asked, so she took it and said she’d return it at the end of the period. The student cursed and threatened violence.

“I gave it back,” Pinto said. “It wasn’t worth it. You have to pick and choose your battles. … Many teachers don’t take [phones] because of the way kids spin out when they’re taken away. It can get intense.”

Cell phone pouches and storage are no silver bullet

The frustration is high among some school leaders. The principal of Brooklyn Collaborative Studies recently emailed parents that students were saying they had no phone when the school collected them in first period, “only for the phones to come out later in the day in the bathrooms, halls, other classes, and lunch/recess.”

A whopping third of New York City high schools use Yondr pouches to collect phones, a 100% year-over-year increase over last year, officials from the 10-year-old company told Chalkbeat.

“This younger generation has not had the experience of life mediated without social media,” Yondr founder Graham Dugoni told Chalkbeat earlier this year. Though some students might push back initially, he said, eventually, they’re happy for the break. Shortly after getting the pouches, one school librarian in Alabama told him that more books were checked out in one week than in the previous year combined.

Yondr pouches average $25 to $30 per student, with pricing varying depending on school size, a company spokesperson said. The company is expecting “significant growth” in pouch use in New York City and beyond. Some schools are bracing for price hikes. One principal said the company is raising its prices for the school from $20 to $30 in the coming year. Yondr spokeswoman Sarah Leader said the company didn’t expect plans to be more costly “overall,” and that “pricing will continue to evolve to better meet our partner’s needs.”

Meanwhile, a Manhattan mom said her middle school is asking the parent association to cover a price tag of more than $18,000 to purchase pouches for their roughly 550 students in the fall. The mom, who asked to withhold her name and the school, supports buying the pouches, but doesn’t think the parent association should foot the bill and worries that could give parents more leverage to oppose the measure.

The pouches aren’t a panacea. Besides cost, kids spend a tremendous amount of energy figuring out how to hack the pouches, teachers and parents told Chalkbeat.

“Some kids will only ‘pretend’ to lock their phones into the pouch. … There are kids who put a fake second phone in the pouch,” said Rachel Fields, a Queens mom to a sixth grader at Halsey Middle School, which began using the pouches this year. “It’s concerning to me that so much energy is expended into sneaking in phones.”

She got her son a smartphone recently, after he insisted he was the only kid without one and was being excluded from group chats. Her son said his Yondr pouch lock is broken, but he told her he puts his phone in regardless and doesn’t use it.

“I hope that’s true,” she said.

One Bronx assistant principal said she preferred Yondr to collecting phones because there are fewer liability issues with letting the students carry their encased devices. Once, pre-Yondr, a student’s confiscated phone went missing, and the administrator paid out-of-pocket to replace it.

“Yondr is not perfect because there are ways around it,” said the assistant principal, requesting anonymity because she wasn’t authorized to speak. “But it’s better than the days I was walking around snatching phones out of kids’ hands left and right.”

Amanda Rinzel, a teacher at Bronx Latin, a 6-12 school, knew that cell phones would have a powerful grip on her students when they returned to the classroom after pandemic campus closures. She was glad that her school rolled out Yondr pouches in fall 2021.

The pouches have been more successful with middle school students — who tend to follow the rules more and still care what grown-ups think — than high schoolers, many of whom have figured out ways to game the system, said Rinzel.

“At my school, a teacher could spend all day playing whack-a-mole with phones; get this person to put their phone away, that one to take out their earbuds, the other one to put their phone in their backpack and leave it at their desk when they go to the bathroom,” she said. “It’s exhausting.”

Rinzel also understands the issue as the parent of a fifth grader and middle schooler herself. She paid close attention to cell phone policies as she toured middle schools. She felt her older child needed a device for the commute from Brooklyn to the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan — but she settled on a type of phone called Pinwheel. The seventh grader can text friends and use parent-enabled apps like Google Maps and Duolingo, but he has no access to a web browser or social media. His school collects phones in the morning and hands them back at dismissal.

Collecting phones might be easier at Rinzel’s son’s school, which serves about 500 students compared to Menasche’s school, Forest Hills, which has seven times the number of students and is on a split session to reduce overcrowding.

Menasche wouldn’t want to hand his phone into school at the start of the day, he said. He worries if there’s an emergency it would be easier for his mom to text him than contact the school to find him. But he finds the current no-phone policy too unclear.

“They don’t enforce that at all,” he said.

Michael Elsen-Rooney contributed.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Related:
3 pillars for building a positive classroom culture
5 ways to manage students’ screen time

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