Orange schools ban cellphones all day, even at lunch

Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | August 2, 2023

Students in Orange County Public Schools will not be able to use cellphones any time during the school day, even at lunch, when the new school year begins next week, the Orange County School Board has decided.

Most students do not yet know of the decision, but one predicted classmates likely will “freak out” when they do learn about the new rule.

Students’ phones must be silent and in backpacks or purses from the first to the final bell of the day under the rule that aims to curb discipline problems, limit distractions in class and encourage in-person communication in the cafeteria.

Superintendent Maria Vazquez said during the first several weeks of school administrators will not impose consequences for phone violations as they work to make sure students understand the new rules. But discipline — including having the phone confiscated until the end of the school day — will be imposed starting in September.

The policy includes exceptions for students who need to use phones because of a medical condition or disability and won’t be enforced during an emergency, officials said. For now, Apple Watches and similar devices are banned, too, though the school board may revisit allowing them.

The board voted unanimously to adopt the cellphone ban, though before Tuesday night’s vote and in earlier discussions several board members also expressed qualms about the rule, particularly the lunch-time ban.

Cellphone use in class has long been frowned upon, but a ban on phone use in school cafeterias will be a big change for many students, though some OCPS schools in recent years have imposed similar rules on their campuses.

Students will be upset about the lunchtime rule, said Mariah Upvall, 17, a senior at Lake Nona High School in south Orange, in an interview ahead of the board’s vote.

“We shouldn’t all be having to deal with the consequences of a couple of people making bad decisions,” she said.

Lake Nona last year banned phones except for lunchtime, and teenagers came to appreciate that when students couldn’t text in hallways everyone moved more quickly between classes, Mariah said.

But during lunch students like to contact their parents and their friends, often to decide where they’ll meet to eat on a campus with more than 4,300 students. “I can’t find my friend unless I’m calling her,” she said.

Students who don’t have friends with the same lunch period, haven’t made friends yet or just can’t find a seat in the crowded cafeteria feel less alone if they are sitting by themselves but can use their phones to listen to music, watch a video or contact someone off campus, she and others said.

“It’s cutting kids off from their lifeline,” agreed Avery Reiss, 17, another Lake Nona senior. “Everybody’s going to freak out. I really just think it’s going to be a messy implementation process.”

Board members said cellphones disrupt classes and fuel bad behavior and curbing their use could help tamp down problems. They also hope it can encourage in-person connections rather than a focus on screens.

“If you talk to the principal, it is a different environment,” said board member Melissa Byrd, describing a high school in the Apopka area that banned phones. “The culture is different. The kids are engaged.”

Board member Maria Salamanca, whose district includes the Lake Nona area, said she knows students will be unhappy with the lunchtime ban. Mariah, Avery and several other students working for her as summer interns told her as much.

But she is convinced that the new policy could reduce problems because students will not be able to so quickly share threats, details about planned fights or other troublesome messages and videos via their phones.

“We kind of owe it to our teachers and administrators to give this a try,” Salamanca said.

“I see the value of students using that time connecting with each other, rather than their phone,” said Chair Teresa Jacobs of the ban on phones during lunch. “That seems like a great time for socialization.”

But Jacobs and others also worried about that change, knowing parents often use the lunch period to alert their children to changes in after-school plans.

“Can you imagine being a public school administrative assistant or front desk clerk and having to deal with all the dismissal changes when the parents call throughout the day because they can’t send a text to their child?” one mother wrote in an email to the board last week. “There is no way at this point I can justify not allowing cellphones at the school during lunch and between classes.”

Some board members also noted that while teachers seem supportive of a cellphone ban, some fear enforcing the new rules could become a time-sucking requirement on their workday.

“I’m willing to try it,” said board member Angie Gallo ahead of Tuesday’s vote. “I just want to ensure we’re monitoring how it goes” and that the board is willing to “dial it back, pull it back, if we find it’s not doable.”

Vazquez, hired last year, in the fall began hosting community meetings and heard so many concerns about bad student behavior from both staff and parents that even before the meetings wrapped up, she pulled together an OCPS discipline task force.

That task force recommended a districtwide cellphone ban and that OCPS make sure discipline rules are consistently enforced across its more than 200 schools. Vazquez said her staff is working to make that happen and to make sure teachers aren’t left with dealing with phone infractions to the detriment of their lessons.

“There are schools that have implemented it successfully. There are bumps in the beginning,” Vazquez said. “We’re going to ask for everybody’s patience.”

But when students return to campus Aug. 10, they will be “shocked” to learn they cannot use phones during lunch, said Anna Pantano, 17, another Lake Nona senior.

“It’s just that one little period of time,” she said. “I just don’t see why it has to be this drastic.”

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