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Sick of Students Looking at Their Phone in Class? Some Schools Have Started Locking Up Their Phones

By Erin Woo - Rep: August 26, 2019

As the second day of school let out at San Mateo High, administrators stood in the rotunda, waving plate-sized silver disks that students tapped with green-and-gray pouches.

Welcome to the newest front in the battle against cell phones in schools: San Mateo High and others across America have begun locking up students’ iPhones and Samsung Galaxies in opaque magnetic Yondr pouches designed to allow students to keep their phones in their possession but remove the temptation, and the opportunity, to break the rules by using them.

When students arrive at their first period class, they tap their Yondr pouches on a disk, known as a base, to unlock it and place their phones and smart watches inside. The pouches automatically lock when closed via a magnet, similar to anti-shoplifting devices in department stores.

Eight hours later, seventh period teachers and administrators are on hand for students to unlock their phones and return to the world of Instagram likes and group messages. All teachers have a base in their classroom, which allows them to quickly unlock students’ pouches in case of emergency, and administrators are considering mounting them at strategic locations around school property.

The new school-wide, cell-free rules weren’t totally unexpected. San Mateo High conducted a class-specific pilot program last semester, and a group of students volunteered to go phone-free all day.

Assistant Principal Adam Gelb said teachers appreciate that the pouches let kids hang on to their phones so they don’t have to worry about lost or stolen devices. And despite some initial anger and upset about losing phone access, after a few weeks, students in the pilot program felt more engaged and were performing better in school.

Gelb said the first couple days of whole-school cell-free rules have been successful, even if anecdotally, students have found the pouch system easy to foil. Hacks like bringing dummy phones to school, or using a strong magnet to break the lock, are common knowledge, says junior Edward Huang, who participated in the pilot.

So far, though, students don’t seem to have had many problems with going cell-less in class.

“We already weren’t allowed to have our phones, and now people are paying more attention,” said junior Julia Viera.

Instead, it’s the in-between time – class changes, lunch and a short midmorning break known as brunch – that’s drawn complaints from students while also getting at the heart of what adults are trying to accomplish with Yondr: a culture shift towards an unplugged, in-person environment.

“Kids are looking up and talking during lunchtime,” said Principal Yvonne Shiu. “The halls are louder.”

Senior Ethan Staneart, who helps plan lunchtime events as part of student leadership, says more students are now participating. Still, he has encountered challenges.

“People were dancing on the plaza,” he said, but without phones to facilitate communication, “I didn’t know where my friends were.”

The pouches sport a futuristic aesthetic that match their Silicon Valley origins. Schools aren’t the only users; some concert performers require patrons to lock their phones during performances. Yondr founder Graham Dugoni said his goal is to fix what’s “out of whack with the role of technology in society and our daily lives.”

The system seems to inspire its users, or at least its adult ones. Allison Silvestri, who was principal of San Lorenzo High School when it became the first Bay Area school to use the pouches all day, praised San Mateo for “joining the movement.” She said Yondr itself becomes a verb: Students Yondr in the morning; teachers make sure that everyone is Yondred; at the end of the day, they unYondr the whole class.

But the program isn’t cheap. At $12 a pop for San Mateo’s roughly 1,700 students, the total cost works out to around $20,000. The pouches are checked out to students for free but will cost $25 to replace if lost or damaged. The cost of the program is being paid from community donations to the San Mateo High School Foundation, said Principal Shiu.

Some students’ concerns go beyond the policy’s social impact. Gelb stresses that regular parent-student communications should be routed through the main office, which he sees as an opportunity for staff to help students through their issues. But Huang and his friends see that as a potential invasion of privacy. And although teachers will have the ability to unlock their students’ phones, in an age of mass shootings, Huang worries that might not happen quickly enough.

“I still think that it would be extremely hectic in an emergency,” Huang said. “My main concern [is] about communication with my parents, letting my parents know I was safe, or telling them something I’ve always wanted to say if maybe I wasn’t.”

In an informal Instagram poll Huang conducted of San Mateo students, the response to the new system was overwhelmingly negative, including concerns over emergency procedures and doubts that the easily hackable pouches would be effective.

“There are far better uses for the school’s money than renting Yondr (i.e., hiring more wellness counselors),” wrote one student.

Antero Garcia, who studies how technology shapes learning as a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, questions why Yondr is necessary in the first place: “I think there’s a real question about school resources and whether that is the best way to use them – to take away people’s phones instead of using the educational opportunity to think about what can be done with phones.

“If we’re not going to teach kids to be mindful, where else are they going to learn those activities?” he added.

In the end, the cell-free debate seems to come down to a question of responsibility and choice. When asked if she believes that Yondr pouches were the best option because students aren’t mature enough to make the decision to turn off their phones at school, Silvestri replied, “Yes, exactly” –a response that’ll likely land differently depending on what side of the generational gap the listeners find themselves.

For his part, Huang said, “most of us already knew how to self-regulate with our phone usage.”

“The kids who wanted to learn,” Huang said, “would learn.”

Source: Bay Area News Group

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