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March 6, 2024

A cellphone use ban in schools? One CT town is experimenting

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Idelisa Torres, the principal of Illing Middle School, unlocks a Yondr pouch holding Attorney General William Tong's cell phones.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s suggestion last month towards the end of his annual State of the State address that kids lock away their smartphones during the school day unexpectedly generated a wave of applause that still is resonating.

“I’m getting a lot of feedback, more feedback on this than anything I’ve done in a while,” Lamont said Tuesday on a school tour. “And I think it really has hit a chord with parents and teachers, and the kids are OK with it.”

Lamont, Attorney General William Tong and education Commissioner Charlene M.  Russell-Tucker visited Illing Middle School in Manchester, where school administrators are three months into a smartphone experiment begun before Lamont mused that schools might do well to emulate Beyoncé.

The singer is one of the performing artists who sometimes require phones be locked in Yondr pouches, small neoprene bags that allow patrons to keep their phones but not use them to take calls or make recordings or photographs during performances.

Manchester spent about $30,000 on Yondr pouches, which can be quickly sealed in the morning and opened in the afternoon with magnetic locks, to enforce a ban at Illing on the use of smartphones during the school day.

It’s a pilot program that teachers and students say is producing benefits beyond a greater degree of engagement in class. They say there is less drama, fewer incidents of digital bullying and a restoration of the privacy that eroded when every kid carried a device that could record video and audio.

No longer are there viral moments at Illing.

“Before this, you’d have kids racing down the hall with their cameras out to video a fight,” said John Burkhardt, a teacher.

Patrick Regan, a science teacher, said the idea that you might be recorded covertly during the school day was discomfiting to students and staff.

“I think that the Yondr pouches give the students an opportunity to be themselves without having that fear of that getting posted on social media,” Regan said.

“Do you miss your phone?” Lamont asked Mikayla Morrison, a student.

“No, not really,” she replied.

Raymond Dolphin, the assistant principal, said some students objected initially, collecting signatures for a protest petition. 

“Are you getting any pushback from parents?” Tong asked.

“We did have parents who were concerned about being able to get in touch with their children in the event that there’s a security issue,” said Chris Pattacini, the chair of the Board of Education.

Matt Geary, the school superintendent, said the concerns largely passed, and the administration will evaluate the experiment for possible expansion at the end of the school year.

Kate Dias, a math teacher at Manchester High School before becoming president of the Connecticut Education Association in 2021, said teachers have long struggled to compete with smartphones for students’ attention.

Many would place them in “cell phone jail,” confiscating them during classes.

“This is a much nicer way to manage that,” Dias said. Nodding to students, she added, “Gives you guys a little bit of control over it as well.”

“Why is this better than phone jail?” Tong asked.

Regan said it ended the constant need for supervision over who was taking notes or texting.

“I don’t want to play whack a mole in my classroom,” Regan replied.

One month ago, Lamont twice mentioned Yondr during a not-quite-60-second section of a 33-minute speech in which he acknowledged Tong’s concerns about the corrosive and occasionally dangerous aspects of social media.

“Here is my idea, a little bit from China and a little bit from Beyoncé. China limits TikTok for children to one hour a day, and Beyoncé makes you leave your smartphone in a Yondr pouch before certain major events,” Lamont said. “We will be sending out guidance to your school board: Have your younger students leave their smartphones at home or drop them in a Yondr pouch at the start of every school day.”

In a year when the governor is intent on not increasing spending, the phone issue was one Lamont could embrace without a cost.

“There are a lot of good things you can do that don’t necessarily have to cost an awful lot of money,” Lamont said Tuesday. “This is one of them, I think.”

Lamont’s Yondr shoutout was heard by Graham Dugoni, a former Duke soccer player who founded Yondr in 2014 as a 33-year-old entrepreneur in California.

“He came to my office in 72 hours,” Lamont said. “His phone was ringing off the hook.”

Dugoni could not be reached Tuesday, but a company spokeswoman said Yondr pouches were used in 3,000 schools with one million students worldwide and the number is expected to “growing significantly” in the next academic year.

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