Cellphone disconnect: Jodi Harris, left, co-president of the Staples PTA, told the Board of Education that banning phones at the high school could “kneecap” various programs, while parent Ashley Zwick advocated for a phone ban to be imposed for all schools immediately. / Photos by Linda Conner Lambeck

By Linda Conner Lambeck

WESTPORT — Supt. of Schools Thomas Scarice says he unequivocally supports establishing a completely “phone-free” environment for students at all of the town’s schools, but not at the start of the 2024-25 school year and not without sufficient buy-in from the public.

“Otherwise … my recommendation could serve as a ‘false start,’ ” Scarice told the Board of Education meeting Thursday.

Cellphones are currently banned in Westport’s elementary schools, restricted to lockers or backpacks at the middle schools, and off-limits during class periods at the high school, but enforcing the policy is a challenge.

After broaching the idea of further restricting student cellphone use and wearable technology last month, Scarice returned to the board this month with his personal recommendation.

Scarice: Phones are addictive, undermine learning and attention span

In a five-page memo, Scarice on Thursday laid out an argument that devices that initially helped add to the learning experience now are used in many ways that make them a distraction.

“A growing body of research continues to point toward a direct correlation between increased smartphone/social media use and increases in students’ inability to maintain attention and focus, and increased levels of anxiety, depression and lower psychological well-being,” the superintendent said.

Smartphones, Scarice said, are addictive, are a detriment to deep learning and information retention, and contribute to cyberbullying,

“Evidence suggests that smartphone bans are linked to decreases in bullying incidents by reducing opportunities for cyberbullying during the school day,” he said.

Scarice also pointed to studies that show schools with phone-free approaches have reported improvements in standardized test scores and overall academic achievement, as well as more peer interactions during breaks, lunchtime and free time as students are less reliant on virtual communication.

“There is no potential for harm to be done if smartphones and wearable technology are banned, but evidence suggests that there is potential harm if we do not,” Scarice said.

He added he is unaware of any school district that has implemented a completely “phone-free” environment and later reversed that decision.

Ban would be challenging, but workable

The superintendent acknowledged operational challenges would be posed if student cellphones were completely banned, but suggested they could be overcome.

“I am confident that the school community would solve each and every one of these challenges and identify new tools and methods to replace our reliance on current technologies,” Scarice said.

There would be exceptions to the ban, particularly for diabetic students who use smartphone technology for medical reasons and for those with certain disabilities.

Scarice said if the community’s consensus is opposed to an outright ban, he would either have to make a stronger case for his position or accept its will.

So far, Scarice said he has talked to some parents and received a few emails about the issue, but has not fully engaged students or families.

High school ban faces opposition

He suspects most high school students would be opposed to the idea.

Some parents are, too.

Jodi Harris, co-president of the Staples High School PTA, said when cellphones are used with intention and purpose, they can be a valuable tool.

Harris went through a long list of ways students use their cellphones while at school: as calculators in math, stop watches in physics, as cameras in chemistry class and as recording devices to conduct interviews for the student newspaper.

In one of her daughter’s classes, students were encouraged to use school devices to read e-texts while taking notes with their personal devices.

Many faculty, coaches and club advisors also communicate with students through emails and Instagram postings throughout the school day, the school board was told.

“You would kneecap that group if you were to take away their phones,” Harris said.

Reactions vary

Meanwhile, Ashley Zwick, the parent of two children in the district, urged the board to impose an immediate ban on smartphones across all schools and all grades.

“I deeply understand the challenges and concerns around this issue,” Zwick said.

But, she added, phones are also causing great harm.

Board member Abby Tolan wondered how much teacher time is wasted trying to manage cellphone use.

Harris told the board that no teachers have expressed concerns about cellphone use to the PTA.

Board member Jill Dillon told Scarice he is right to pursue the issue. “We talk about academic excellence and … this is a roadblock,” she said.

Dillon sees a lot of support for prohibiting smartphones at the middle schools. She is not so sure about the high school.

Board Vice Chair Dorie Hordon wants to hear more community feedback. “I’m indifferent,” she said. “I will follow what I hear.”

Board member Robert Harrington said whatever the policy it should be enforced consistently. He also would like to see any changes to the policy enacted sooner rather than later.

Board Chair Lee Goldstein wondered how a middle school ban would be different from current policy that requires cellphones to remain in lockers during the school day.

That proves difficult to enforce at Bedford, which this year doesn’t use lockers. Cellphones stored in backpacks are more easily accessible.

Elena Caggiano, the other Staples PTA co-president, urged the district to take time deliberating on the issue.

Freelance writer Linda Conner Lambeck, a reporter for more than four decades at the Connecticut Post and other Hearst publications, is a member of the Education Writers Association.