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Cellphone bans are the right thing for students, but a no-win for public school teachers

The stark divide on cellphone use highlights inequities in education. It’s time for the tech giants to step up.

A person sits curled up on a chair at a school desk, looking at a smartphone, with two books placed on the desk, in a seemingly contemplative or stressed posture.
Source: PonyWang/Getty Images

By Tamara Straus

San Francisco once again faces a tale of two cities, this time in figuring out how to ban cellphones in schools. 

At private high schools in San Francisco, such as University and Archbishop Riordan, if a student is found scrolling social media during class time, their phone gets taken away, or they get detention. If a student posts a bullying TikTok shot from the lunchroom, chances are they will be reprimanded. In repeat or extreme cases, students get suspended. 

But in San Francisco public schools, things are different. Because of California’s laudable efforts to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline associated with suspensions, teachers and administrators have been forced to walk a disciplinary tightwire. And that wire just got higher. 

That’s because when schools reopen in August, students who exercise “willful defiance,” or bad behaviors like talking back to teachers or using their cellphones without permission, will no longer be punished through suspension. Instead, they will face little to no consequences. And since detention is considered inequitable and hard to staff in a district that must cut hundreds of positions to close a $420 million deficit, students who prefer to burrow into their phones during class time can usually do so with impunity. 

The SFUSD teachers I have spoken to said it’s often too time-consuming to reason with these cellphone-addicted students. Teachers would rather ignore the behavior since at least the devices keep the students quiet, allowing them to focus on those who want to learn. 

Unfortunately, this state of affairs for teachers contradicts the cellphone policies of their employers. An increasing number of California public schools have banned smartphones—San Mateo High School became a cellphone-free environment in 2019; Los Angeles Unified banned them in June. 

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently announced he wants to severely restrict students’ smartphone use during the school day throughout the state. He cited the well-established mental health risks of social media and echoed guidance from Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. California Assembly Bill 3216, introduced in February, would enshrine this in law. 

This would bring the state’s enforcement in line with what SFUSD claims is its policy. That four-year-old policy states: “All mobile communication devices shall be turned off and put away during instructional time, including during passing period.” 

What is a public school teacher to do?

Many say a strict ban on cellphone use is a no-brainer. There’s just too much evidence that the devices wire students’ brains for attention deficit, anxiety, depression and poor academic habits and social skills.

But teachers note there should be exceptions because the devices provide some academic benefits, especially to English language learners and those with learning differences. In San Francisco and most public schools, students are provided $200 Chromebooks, which can’t handle translation apps or take photos of the blackboard.

Some San Francisco public schools have created a technological workaround. Denman, Francisco, Willie L. Brown and Martin Luther King Jr. middle schools each invested about $10,000, or $25 to $30 per student to buy cellphone-locking pouches. Students’ cellphones go in the pouches for the entire school day, avoiding disciplinary challenges and theft. San Mateo High School also uses the pouches, allowing a lockable phone case to do what teachers and administrators can’t seem to do. 

One San Francisco private school teacher I spoke to said her school’s solution is much cheaper: a caddy or box on her desk. The students place their phones there during homeroom and pick them up at the end of the day. If they don’t comply and are found texting or scrolling, she takes the device to the school’s security guard. But that school is well-resourced, largely high-income and not beset by regular incidents of violence.

Given that many San Francisco public school teachers just don’t have the time or disciplinary resources to play cellphone cop, will San Francisco Unified pony up about $722,000 for cellphone locking pouches for its 24,086 middle and high school students? 

That may be a hard call, given that the district is on the verge of bankruptcy. In May, the California Department of Education downgraded SFUSD’s fiscal status to negative. It’s hard to believe that the public school system in the second richest city in America, with the most billionaires and where the former mayor is now governor, is projected to run out of cash in 2025. But here we are.

A central irony of the school cellphone debate is that its origin is right here in our backyard. The San Francisco-Silicon Valley area is home to many of the companies that created the social media apps and phones in the first place. Companies like Apple and Meta should be aggressively working toward technical changes the surgeon general recommended, like requiring age verification for apps or creating new technology to turn off phones during school hours. Given their own addiction to the profits they’re reaped from children’s attention, I’m skeptical they’ll do this on their own. 

So it’s left up to the teachers. Without disciplinary tools like detention and suspension, or support staff like security guards and mental health counselors, San Francisco public school teachers are asked to do the impossible. At the very least, tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg and Laurene Powell Jobs could pony up the funds for the basic cellphone-locking pouches, a paltry sum to them at less than $1 million. 

One of the morals of Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” is that
things are not as they appear. That seems particularly true for the school
cellphone debate. It’s not about whether cellphones belong in adolescent
classrooms. They don’t. It’s about whether we—elected officials, schools administrators and parents—can admit that public teachers have dwindling tools and resources to manage their own classrooms. It’s time to give some of them back.

Tamara Straus is senior editor at the Chronicle of Philanthropy and former managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner. Her children have attended public, private, parochial and charter schools in San Francisco.

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