Back to school: Seeking balance when it comes to cellphone use in classrooms

  • At right, Northampton sophomores Ella Pelis, left, and Ellen Mathews, talk about cellphone policies.

  • Kim Bush has been an English teacher at Hampshire Regional High School since 1992. Photographed in her classroom last Wednesday in Westhampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Above, Northampton High School freshman Jack Stein talks about cellphone policies and use at JFK Middle School and the different policies at Northampton High.

  • Hampshire Regional sophomore Sarah Unger talks about cellphone policies and use in the Westhampton middle school and high school during a visit to Northampton last Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton sophomore Ella Pelis talks about cellphone policies and use at JFK Middle School and Northampton High School last Thursday in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hampshire Regional High School English teacher Kim Bush, left, and Principal Kristen Smidy talk in the school’s office last Wednesday in Westhampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Kim Bush has been an English teacher at Hampshire Regional High School since 1992. Photographed in her classroom last Wednesday in Westhampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hampshire Regional sophomore Abigail Buschini talks about cellphone policies and use in the Westhampton middle school and high school during a visit to Northampton last Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/20/2019 3:35:24 PM

Between classes at Northampton High School, many students’ focus shifts from academics to their cellphones.

“Suddenly everyone texts each other, Snapchat, Instagram — the basic social media platforms people use these days,” said incoming senior and student union president Willa Sippel, about the rush of digital activity.

Lunch and the time between classes — “passing period” — are the only times students are allowed to use cellphones at Northampton High under a new policy that went into effect last winter.

Similar rules are in place at other high schools throughout the Valley, as district leaders constantly evaluate cellphone use and policies.

The goal, educators say, is to find the right balance between keeping students on task when it’s time for classroom instruction, but also giving them the chance to use their devices — which nearly all of them have access to — during downtimes.

“Teachers and administrators often feel we are fighting with the cellphone for their attention,” said William Evans, a 21-year educator in his first year as principal at Easthampton High School. “Banning them doesn’t make sense because it’s the world they are going to be entering.”

Educators admit that no solution is foolproof in today’s age, where 95 percent of teens have access to a smartphone, according to a Pew Research Center study last year. That’s up 22 percent from the last study in 2014-2015. The study found that some 45 percent of teens now say they are online on a “near-constant basis,” while another 44 percent say they go online several times a day.

To ban or not to ban?

Though banning cellphones from school all together might seem like a good idea, it’s not that simple.

Until Northampton High’s new cellphone policy went into effect last winter, teachers made their own decisions about how the devices could be used in class, said Lori Vaillancourt, interim principal.

Teachers asked the school to look at the issue.

“Together they decided we needed to have a uniform front,” Vaillancourt said. “So the policy was predictable from classroom to classroom.”

Now, phones are not allowed in class, and in every classroom behind the teacher’s desk is a caddy where students are supposed to leave their phones in.

For the most part, it’s worked, both Vaillancourt and Sippel said.

But, Vaillancourt said, “Students are smart and they’ve found some loopholes,” like putting a fake phone in the caddy.

“In high school and middle school, there’s always going to be issues — people using their phone, sneaking it, trying to get around the rules,” Sippel said.

Hampshire Regional nixed its no-phone policy about six or seven years ago in favor of allowing students to use devices during lunch and passing time.

“We were unable to follow it consistently when it was a zero-tolerance policy,” Principal Kristen Smidy said.

Smidy said the policy helped cut down on “student bathroom use,” when students would escape to the bathroom to use their devices.

Sara Unger, an incoming 10th grader at Hampshire Regional, said that even though cellphones were not allowed in middle school, “people definitely used it anyways. If I needed to talk to someone, I’d go to the bathroom.” The high school’s more lax policy has been helpful. “Since you can have cellphones outside of class it is less tempting to have them in class,” she said.


Still, phones are distracting. Sometimes, when students are leaving Kim Bush’s English class at Hampshire Regional High, “They don’t turn to each other and say ‘hey, what are you doing tonight?’ They hop on their phones.”

And in the hallways, it can seem like everyone is using them. “I find myself saying, ‘hey, heads up, head up,’ because in the hallways they’re always looking at their phones,” said Bush, who has been at the school since 1992.

The same can be true at lunch, where students at most Valley schools are able to use their phones. “Everyone is on their phone at lunch,” said Ella Pelis, an incoming 10th grader at Northampton High.

But, her classmate Ellen Mathews chimed in, “They’re still talking to people.”

“It’s multitasking,” Pelis added.

John Robert, superintendent at Smith Academy in Hatfield, said he’s thinking about taking another look at his district’s lunch-use policy. One option could be setting up a lounge specifically for cellphone use at lunch, he said.

“They’re all on their cellphones,” Robert said. “I think it cuts into students being able to socialize and interact with each other.”

Robert recognizes there is sometimes a “legitimate need” for students to be on their phone at lunch. Teachers and administrators pointed to examples of such needs, like letting parents know about changes to the school day or after-school activities.

Not all teachers agree phones should be banned from the classroom.

“I think there are good uses for phones in classrooms,” said ​​​​Jeromie Whalen, technology teacher at Northampton High. Kahoot, a game in which students can answer questions on their phone, is one example, Whalen said.

He acknowledged, however, that there are some distraction risks. “You can’t block apps on someone’s personal devices,” he said.

Whether phones are totally banned or not, there are factors schools don’t control. The fast pace of technology is one. Sometimes when a phone is confiscated at Hampshire Regional, Smidy said, “We realize a student is texting from their watch.” And, she added, “More and more students have two cellphones, which is concerning.”

Some parts of Northampton High get poor cellphone reception, but Whalen said he thinks Verizon may have recently put an amplifier up to strengthen it.

“A lot of students have Verizon,” he said. “It might be a game-changer.”

Middle school rules

The majority of middle schools have banned or mostly banned cellphones.

“Off and away at JFK,” is JFK Middle School’s mantra, said Vincent Napoli, the Northampton school’s associate principal.

For the most part, the slogan works, said Jack Stein, an incoming Northampton High freshman. But, “Sometimes, some kids are under the desk doing Snapchat and stuff,” he said.

If a student makes a habit of getting caught with their phone, it’s confiscated and a parent has to pick it up, Napoli said.

“We’ve had some parents say, ‘keep it for a couple of days!’” he said. After a parent comes in, he continued, “you usually never see it again.”

But just because phones are banned doesn’t mean students aren’t thinking about them.

In Easthampton, “it’s kind of a rite of passage you earn, getting to use your cellphone,” said White Brook Middle School Principal Meredith Balise. Some teachers allow eighth-graders to use their phone at the end of the year “as a graduation treat,” she said.

‘100 percent access’

Even when the rules around cellphones are obeyed, the effect of digital devices on young people outside of school can bleed into the classroom.

For example, Balise sees social media becoming an issue at times in middle school. “Social media … It’s probably our biggest problem we deal with in supporting kids with social-emotional things,” she said.

“When things happen outside of school on social media, of course, they filter back into school,” ​​​​​Balise said. “It really affects the student’s ability to sit and focus in a classroom.”

The school has put on workshops for parents and held discussions with students to better educate them about social media.

“They are going to use it so we try to help them us it responsibly in a healthy way,” Balise said. “It certainly has its benefits as well as its downfalls.”

Bush, the English teacher at Hampshire Regional, said cellphones aren’t a huge problem during her classes, but she sees their impact on students and how they interact with her.

For several years, she has conducted an experiment. In a discussion about loneliness, she has asked students to take out their phones and text someone they know, telling them to respond when they get the message.

“I’ve recorded the fastest response — it was 3 seconds,” she said. “They can reach anyone they want in a moment’s notice. They’re never really lonely … And that’s fine. The way that interrupts my classroom is they expect the same thing from their teachers.”

If an assignment is due on Monday, she said she will get emails about it at 8 p.m. Sunday, when she is not working.

“They don’t hear from me immediately, so 30 minutes later I get another email ... They expect 100 percent access at all times.”

She continued, “They don’t understand what’s wrong with a teacher receiving an email saying ‘hello?’”

In the last three or four years, she said, this issue has ramped up.

Bush lives in Southampton and some students know her kids. “Some will reach out to my children,” she said. “They’ll Snapchat my kids and say, ‘can you tell her to check her email?’”

Greta Jochem can be reached at


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