IRSD high schools consider cell phones in the classroom

Is there any cell phone service in the science lab? How about the cafeteria?

If most high-schoolers are already carrying what are essentially mini-computers in their pockets each day, then Indian River School District might take advantage of that fact.

Principal Bradley Layfield of Sussex Central High School is proposing that the two district high schools have a pilot program this spring to test having cell phones in the classroom.

“Smartphones are ubiquitous. I think they can be harnessed for an educational purpose with strict parameters within a classroom,” he told the IRSD Board of Education on Sept. 25.

Currently, the district policy is that personal devices must be turned off, and students can lose their phones just for checking the time on them.

But they’re using computers more than ever, submitting assignments on the Schoology platform and collaborating on Google Docs.

The district has improved tech, but the laptops still aren’t available at a one-to-one student ratio. Science classrooms want to watch more labs; career classrooms want to quickly film videos; art students want to research images, music and choreography.

“The whole reason this is a pilot and not an adopted policy is because there can be a lot of pitfalls here,” Layfield said.

It’s not a perfect system yet. The district can use firewalls to keep students from accessing certain websites through school-based wireless internet, but they can’t control anything accessed through a phone’s own mobile data network. Also, Layfield said he didn’t know if the wireless firewall would apply to standalone apps.

Additionally, the district must clarify if cell phone use would still be prohibited on school buses.

They’ll gather input from anyone involved, including students, teachers, staff and discipline data.

Officials said now’s the time to begin testing and observing, especially since the technology is guaranteed to change exponentially in the next five years. When they enter 12th grade, today’s middle-schooler may be doing things with a smartphone no one could imagine now.

“Part of education is teaching people how to be a responsible user of technology,” Layfield said.

Anti-bullying campaigns in schools have had to be refitted to address cyber-cullying.

“This is a chance for us to give you more freedoms, and with freedom comes responsibility. But it is up to us to teach you digital citizenship,” Layfield said.

Is there concern about students being allowed to silently communicate en masse during school hours? Not really, Layfield said.

“I have typical found that the more students that are aware of any type of communication, the more likely that we will be are of it,” which comes from staff building trusting relationships with the kids. “That will be a concern to monitor. That is not anything that we have been made aware of.”

With the board’s approval, the schools could likely educate their teachers and students well enough to roll out the new system after the winter holidays.

As a new high school principal, Michael Williams may bring different perspective, having most recently worked with middle-schoolers until coming to Indian River High School this year.

This would be a pilot program for IRSD to gather data and iron out the kinks. Only time would tell whether the IRSD scraps the whole idea or writes the experience into an official policy.

“It is going to be difficult, but we do want to see where there could be pitfalls, where there could be positives,” said Layfield, who said he has seen other high schools with successful cellphone use. Sometimes cafeterias were less noisy because kids were listening to music or podcasts instead of talking.

Things have changed.

“Let’s face it. Students who are teenagers are digital natives. They have no idea what life was like before cell phones,” Layfield said. “A student checking a social media profile [today] … would be the equivalent of a boyfriend and girlfriend meeting up at the locker to make plans for the weekend.”

Obviously, cellular phones can be a distraction when used for the wrong purposes, such as surfing the web or updating their Instagram accounts from school.

“We’re trying to avoid that,” Layfield said. “I think by allowing personal use of cellphones during transition times, there’s less of an urge” to check social media in class.

Although schools need to be stringent about inappropriate cell phone use (such as inappropriate photos, bullying or social media during class time), the change could also help students better communicate. For example, many of Layfield’s 230 English language learner (ELL) students own smartphones with the “vital” Google Translate app.

Does Sussex Central have enough bandwidth for 1,600 new Wi-Fi connections? Layfield said they do, according to the former IRSD head of technology. That means students shouldn’t have to rely on their family’s mobile data plan to make use of their phones in school.

The current cell phone proposal is online at (click “Meetings,” “Sept. 25, 2017,” click “View the Agenda” and “6.07 Policy”). Discussion will continue at future meetings of the Policy Committee and the school board.