Pasco, Pinellas students face new school cellphone restrictions

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Aiming to direct students’ attention toward learning, the Pasco and Pinellas county school boards on Tuesday adopted more limits on when cellphones may be used during the school day.

In Pasco, students across all grade levels must keep their phones silenced and stowed away during classes, unless a teacher gives permission to use them for lessons. The off-and-out-of-sight rule will remain in place throughout the day, including during before- and after-school activities, at elementary and middle schools.

Officials had intended to have the same strict requirement in place for high schools, too. But after hearing pushback from students, staff and parents, the administration decided to allow high school students to use their phones during their lunch periods.

In Pinellas, elementary and middle school students are expected to keep their phones off throughout the school day, except as allowed by teachers, special education plans or emergency situations. Smart watches will be allowed to remain on, but only in the silent mode.

Pinellas high school students will be permitted to keep their phones on in the silent mode. They may use the phones during passing periods and lunch, but not during classes except with teacher approval, special education need or emergencies.

The Hillsborough County School Board is scheduled to take up new cellphone rules when it meets July 23.

Districts across Florida are revising these policies in concert with state law giving teachers more authority to control their classrooms. They also have cited problems with increased mental health struggles and lost instructional time.

Gov. Ron DeSantis highlighted the issue during a news conference on Monday, saying the districts that have throttled back cellphones have seen improvements in performance and behavior.

“The students even admit it’s better,” DeSantis said, calling the approach “huge” for education. “That was something that’s really, really significant, and I’m glad we did it.”

Pasco board members said they wanted to ensure that, as the district gets tougher in its student code of conduct, teachers and administrators are not overburdened with enforcement.

“I believe our administrators should be focused on being the instructional leaders at the schools,” board member Colleen Beaudoin said, calling for a balance between the concerns about phone abuse and the time needed to implement the rules.

Superintendent Kurt Browning, who initially recommended a complete ban on phone use in schools, said he did not anticipate many problems. He noted the district made some other limitations on phones a year ago, and faced almost no negative response to the changes.

He added that the district will have more discipline aides in middle and high schools, and they can help handle any issues that arise.

Students who violate Pasco’s policy could face disciplinary action that could include suspension, but not expulsion or alternative placement. Browning said he did not expect students to have their phones confiscated as part of the plan, amid concerns about liability if something happens to a phone while in the district’s custody.

Pinellas School Board chairperson Laura Hine noted her district’s policy was devised after months of research into other district practices, as well as conversations with local students, parents and staff. She said it will allow for clear and consistent implementation across all schools.

Superintendent Kevin Hendrick said that initiative will begin with district and school administrators discussing details over the summer, in advance of a campaign to inform families about “digital citizenship” expectations before children resume classes in August.

That effort also will include lessons on how students can use their phones and other devices in a meaningful way, Hendrick said.

“It’s one thing to tell them to put their phones away,” Hine added. “It is another to teach appropriate use.”

She said officials from several county agencies are collaborating to combat youth mental health struggles tied to technology. “If Pinellas County wants to move the needle,” Hine said, the effort “has to be broader than the schools.”