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B.C. school teens showed improved grades and social skills after a ban on phones

Pilot project at B.C. high school has been ongoing for 5 months
Chatelech Secondary School councillor Tulani Pierce, left, and vice-principal Paula Stroshein-Martinez are shown in this undated handout image. PHOTO BY TULANI PIERCE /The Canadian Press

When British Columbia school counsellor Tulani Pierce started noticing mental health trouble in some of her students last year, she said it gave her an idea: ban cellphones in the classroom.

They were distracted and they had a hard time putting their phones away, she said.

It’s been five months since students at Chatelech Secondary School on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast have been banned from using their cellphones without permission, and Pierce said they’ve seen promising results.

“We are seeing improved mental health, we’re seeing decreased bullying, we’re seeing more engagement in class, we’re seeing more social interaction, kids are playing again instead of being on their phones and we’re seeing increased academic success.”

Pierce began lobbying for the policy change, but said it was never meant to be a punishment for students.

“Now more than ever, I feel like our students, for their mental health, need us to provide boundaries around technology and they will have to learn how to balance that,” she said.

“So, we are trying to be that balance for kids when they come to school.”

She said when the students were first told about the ban, some were angry and upset, while others “were extremely relieved.”

“We care about our kids that much and the reason why we did this was because of the mental health, academic achievement and equity issues,” she said, adding that not all families can afford cellphones for their children.

Robert Schumann, a physical education teacher at the school, said he has watched the gradual rise of cellphone use in schools for over two decades, and the ban is a turnaround for students.

They are joking around and actually engaging in classes, Schumann said, and he attributes the transformation to the school’s no-cellphone policy.

Hallway posters greet Chatelech’s students telling them to “turn it off and put it away.”

The school policy requires all cellphones and electronic devices to be turned off during classroom time and the time before and between classes.

Students are asked to keep their phones either in lockers or in backpacks. All teachers are responsible for enforcing the rules, and those who break them are directed to put their devices in a secure location for the rest of the school day.

Students and their families were given six weeks notice to prepare for the change.

The past several months have been a journey for everyone, but the process was going smoothly with help from colleagues and parents who have been “incredibly supportive,” she said.

Rules for cellphones in schools vary from province to province. Ontario has a blanket ban to restrict students from using mobile devices during instructional time.

B.C.’s Education Ministry said in a statement that school districts and individual schools are responsible for managing students’ use of technology, and some have established policies governing the use of phones on school grounds.

As one of the latest to adopt a cellphone ban, Chatelech Secondary’s policy has received mixed reactions from educators with some applauding the results while others claim an outright ban isn’t a solution.

Shimi Kang, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, said it’s an example of how one teacher can start leading a change.

“In general, it’s a good idea because if we want to have someone’s attention whether it’s in a conversation or in a classroom, you need to have the screens away,” said Kang, who wrote a book on the subject, “The Tech Solution, Creating Healthy Habits for Kids Growing Up In a Digital World.”

Although there is never one rule that works for everything, the gesture of moving screens away from students could have many benefits, she said.

“Teacher’s satisfaction goes up, students’ learning goes up, and very importantly, the student community improves because the kids are now looking and talking to each other and making friendships instead of going on their screens.”

Kang’s message to teachers and parents is that they shouldn’t be afraid to set limits on cellphone use, she said.

However, former Vancouver School Board chair Patti Bacchus disagrees with a ban, saying it’s a “1960s solution to a 2023 problem.”

The education commentator said she has no doubt that cellphones could be a distraction in class, but over her last ten years working in many schools, she doesn’t see phones as a big problem.

“I would not want to be a teacher tasked with enforcing this and constantly having to police somebody who brought their phone to school,” Bacchus said.

Students have lives going on outside of the class, such as taking care of siblings or doing part-time jobs and they may need phones to manage these tasks, she said.

Bacchus said people also need to accept the fact that phones are ubiquitous components of modern life, and the technology is not going away.

Instead, she said teachers should perhaps take the opportunity to talk about addiction, list the pros and cons of using phones and leave it up to students to decide.

“I would rather educate and make students become critical thinkers. What are the impacts of screen time? How does that affect you? What does science tell us and learn about it?

“Learn about it from that perspective, use it as an educational opportunity as opposed to, let’s just make rules and hide from it because that is not education,” Bacchus said.

Pierce said her goal is to see students across Canada taking a break from their phones in school rather than constantly checking social media notifications and responding to texts.

“I hope to inspire others. It’s hard work, but it’s good work,” Pierce said.

Nono Shen, The Canadian Press

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