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Cellphone-free zones: More SF schools lock up student mobile devices during class

Students get their phone cases unlocked by a Yondr employee after school at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco Calif., on Monday, Aug. 22, 2022. The cases containing the phones are locked during school hours to help students refrain from being on their phones during class. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

Hundreds of cellphone-deprived people lined up to access the devices that they had on hand all day but were unable to access because they’d been sealed for hours in gray pouches.

But this was no concert or comedy show, many of which for years have put audience phones under lock and key. 

This was a procession of students being released from class on Monday at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School. Administrators at the school recently began using a cellphone-locking pouch created by Yondr, a San Francisco company that largely contracts with entertainers and event venues but increasingly does business with campuses throughout the country.

Within five minutes, the lines were clear as student after internet-deprived student reclaimed access to their smartphones. 

Alongside Francisco and James Denman middle schools, MLK Middle is one of at least three campuses in San Francisco deploying the pouches this year in hopes of improving student focus and behavior. Leadership High School began using Yondr in 2019. Everett Middle School also uses the company’s tough fabric phone lockups.

James Lick Middle School’s use of Yondr inspired administrators at MLK Middle to start using the phone-locking devices last spring. Principal Michael Essien said he turned to the company to help with students struggling to adapt after more than a year of digital learning.

He said it cost his school about $10,000 to deploy the low-tech solution to a high-tech problem.

Cellphone use in class was the catalyst for most of the fights school staff had to break up last year, MLK Middle counselor Clifton Szeto told The Standard. On Aug. 18, just one day after the school year began, Essien said a student had their phone confiscated for making a TikTok in the hallway while class was in session. 

“Phones were a pervasive issue,” said Essien, who is also president of United Administrators of San Francisco. “It was ridiculous. If we could pay $10,000 to solve it … that was a no-brainer.”

Daniela M., a student at MLK Middle, remembers as far back as fourth grade seeing students using their phones in class—a lot. She was one of a handful of pupils on Monday who seemed perfectly content to have no access to a cellphone during school hours.

“We socialize more,” Daniela told The Standard. “I really enjoyed how people were more in the moment. It feels good.”

A number of students looked annoyed when the pouches were introduced on their first day of school, staff said, while a parent or two responded to the change negatively since then. But otherwise, the reception has largely skewed positive or neutral.

A Yondr employee waits for school to end to unlock students cell phone bags at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Academic Middle School in San Francisco on Aug. 22, 2022. The cases containing the phones are locked during school hours to help students refrain from being on their phones during class. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

According to a survey of 900 schools by Yondr, 65% saw academic improvement, 74% saw better student behavior, and 83% saw higher student engagement in classrooms. 

The crackdown on cellphones in the classroom comes as school staff nationwide reports grappling with rising behavioral issues among students, who spent more than a year in pandemic-forced remote learning.

But the disruption brought by Covid came on the heels of already ascendant problems that psychologists say arise from increasing social media and mobile device use among young people.

A more recent study, released this year by Common Sense Media, found that the amount of time children spent in front of screens for entertainment grew by 17% between 2019 and 2021—an uptick experts attribute to the isolation brought by the pandemic. Recreational screen time among American youth grew during that window more than it had during the four years prior.

It’s unclear exactly how many schools in San Francisco currently use Yondr. The company did not respond to requests for comment and the San Francisco Unified School District was unable to gather information by press time.

Students are responsible for bringing the Yondr pouches to school each day. When they get to school, they put their phones in the pouches. Though they get to keep the pouches with them all day, they can’t access them until school lets out. Once the last bell rings, school staff and Yondr reps tap the magnetic unlocking device to free the phone for use once again. 

In the event of a campus emergency, school officials say staff will be able to unlock the phones once students are safe and secure. And caregivers may contact the main office to reach their child for personal emergencies. 

Whether the phone-free environment will take off and chart a new chapter for schools in the digital age remains to be seen. But Szeto is encouraged by a new student who came from a school that used Yondr pouches and said they worked.

“It’s too early to say,” Szeto said. But, she added, “I’m feeling optimistic.”

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