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Lawmakers push for phone restrictions in schools

Schools across Washington state are developing new cellphone policies to stop under-the-desk texting for teens and game playing while at school.

Some of these policies are already in use at Eastern Washington's Reardan-Edwall School District. Superintendent Eric Sobotta gave the screen time change rave reviews.

"Middle school students actually have to talk to each other at lunch rather than be on their phones playing games," Sobotta said.

Despite individual schools taking the initiative on these efforts, lawmakers want to make similar rules mandatory for all K-12 public schools across the state.

HB2018, a bill under consideration in the state Legislature, implements a pilot project to begin testing strategies for limiting phone use in public schools.

Directed by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the pilot project would begin in June. After this test, all K-12 public schools would be required to implement best practices during the 2027-28 school year.

Lawmakers say this is in an effort to combat low test scores. Prime sponsor Rep.Stephanie McClintock, R-Vancouver, noted only 60% of students are meeting math standards and 50% meet reading goals.

The bill suggests that schools require phones be left at the "front of the classroom, an administrative office or in a secure container," during instructional hours.

Instructional hours include all school activities, even things like recess, with the exception of meal times.

The bill also notes some exceptions can be made for cases of emergencies or for those who use their phones for health purposes. For example, some students manage diabetes using their phones.

Sobotta said it was too early to see data, but anecdotal reports are positive.

"The kids are more engaged with their learning," Sobotta said. "Students say hi to me now when I say hi to them in the hall instead of having in earbuds. Cyberbullying issues have gone way down."

Kelsi Hamilton, of the Chehalis School Board, recounted meeting with the school therapist who noticed grades rising among the students she was seeing. When the therapist asked students why they thought their grades had improved, they all attributed it to the no-phones policy.

A middle school teacher of 20 years also approached Hamilton and said the phone policy was the best she had seen in all her years of teaching, and that she noticed improved mental health in her students.

Hamilton also noted did not require any additional spending, and the same can be said for implementing this legislation.

The only criticism of this bill came from Sobotta, when he said the bill should be implemented in a matter of months, not years.