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Suffolk Closeup: Bravo, Mr. Miedema!

“Can you hear your teacher now? There will be no cellphones in classes,” was the headline last week in the Reporter relating that “when school starts in a few weeks … grades 6 through 12 at Shelter Island School will be asked to abandon their cellphones at the start of each class.”

The plan had just been announced by the Shelter Island Board of Education. The article noted that teacher Peter Miedema began a cellphone ban in his humanities classes last year leading to the broader prohibition. It quoted him having said: “You cannot learn at the same time you are looking at other information.”

Bravo, Mr. Miedema!

Meanwhile, from the a relatively small place to a very large place — the world — the headline last month in the British publication, The Guardian, was “Put learners first: UNESCO calls for a global ban on smartphones in schools.” The Guardian article was about the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization just issuing a report stating that “there was evidence that excessive mobile phone use was linked to reduced educational performance.”

The Guardian noted that the extensive report, which is online, emphasized the importance “of education where students receive face-to-face teaching.” The Guardian said: “Based on its analysis of 200 education systems around the world, UNESCO estimated one in four countries has banned smartphones in school … These included France, which introduced its policy in 2018, and the Netherlands … Announcing the ban this month, the Dutch education minister, Robbert Dijkgraaf, said: ‘Students need to be able to concentrate and need to be given the opportunity to study well. Mobile phones are a disturbance … We need to protect students against this.’”

I’ve been a professor (of journalism) for 45 years, and in my experience there is nothing more disruptive to the educational process than students taking out their cellphones and instead of being involved in a class being affixed to this electronic narcotic.

Now, I find cellphones a boon, but there are circumstances in which they should not be used, like looking at their screens while driving, or in a classroom setting. I advise the students on the syllabi for my classes: “Smartphones and similar electronic devices, because they divert a student’s attention, ARE NOT TO BE USED during class”

Joining Shelter Island in a class cellphone prohibition this coming schoolyear is the Pierson Middle-High School, as a result of a decision by the Sag Harbor School District.

It’s “a decision that all neighboring districts should seriously consider as well, in support of an educational environment that is equitable and focused on the well-being of its study body first and foremost,” declared an editorial last month in the Sag Harbor Express and other Express News Group newspapers.

The editorial was headed: “A Trailblazing Moment.” The ban is “to be commended,” said the editorial, “ensuring that our schools are a place where students can be fully engaged with educators, and each other.” It “is the least we can do for our children.”

Another media voice on the issue came in May in The Washington Post in a piece by Donna St. George, its national education reporter. Her article was headlined: “Students can’t get off their phones. Schools have had enough,” was the headline.

She wrote: “When students returned to school during the pandemic, educators quickly saw a change in their cellphone habits. More than ever, they were glued to the devices during class — posting on social media, searching YouTube, texting friends.

“So this year, schools in Ohio, Colorado, Maryland, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia, California and others banned the devices in class,” continued her piece.

Newsday has written about the situation on Long Island in an article by Craig Schneider in June. “Long Island educators said they’re seeing more and more students who can’t keep their hands off their cellphones during class,” said his piece. “The problem, they add, worsened after students returned from the COVID pandemic, when kids learned at home remotely and relied on their phones to connect to the outside world … Some Island districts, including Sag Harbor, Brentwood and Shelter Island, are either adopting or considering policies to restrict the use of cellphones in school.”

His piece noted, “Some 77% of schools nationwide have policies prohibiting nonacademic use of cellphones in class, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics.”

Technology, and misuse of it, are two sides of the same coin. A technological contribution can also be an encumbrance, indeed frequently a threat — certainly to learning, when it comes to cellphones and students, like so many of us, addicted to them.