Howard PTA Council hopes to answer cell phone questions

The new cell phone and social media rules in Howard County schools have been in place for almost five months now, but questions remain among parents as to how the changes are impacting their children's education.

So the PTA Council of Howard County Monday, Jan. 6, hosted a question-and-answer session at its general meeting, for parents to talk to several Howard County Public School System administrators.

"Especially with the bring-your-own device pilot and the social media in the schools, we felt it would be helpful for parents to hear from the school system how things have been working," said PTA Council President Christina Delmont-Small. "It's important for parents to have their questions asked and answered."

The Board of Education last summer revised its social media and acceptable use of technology policies, opening the doors to new guidelines in the schools. Students in high schools are now allowed to use their phones in between classes and during lunch, and middle schools are slowly allowing their students to use their phones at lunch as well. Additionally, Mt. Hebron, Long Reach and River Hill high schools are the first in a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) pilot program where students can use their own phones, tablets and laptops in class as part of instruction.

The program, along with the iPad pilot at Elkridge Landing Middle School, could expand next year.

"We want to cultivate a vibrant learning community that prepares students to thrive in the world," said Frank Eastham, the system's executive director of school improvement and administration. "The BYOD assists us in increasing student access to learning experiences."

But some parents remain concerned the new rules needlessly highlight inequities among students. Some parents suggested the school system look into partnering with tech companies to provide students with devices, for example.

"Part of the scope of the pilot is to look at our options, and what we can do to increase access," Eastham said. He pointed to a program through Comcast that offers internet access for the homes of students on free and reduced-cost meals. Eastham also said that the BYOD pilot meant that with students bringing in their own laptops, other students have readier access to laptops in the schools' mobile labs.

Other parents remained skeptical at claims that increased cell phone use could actually combat cyberbullying. While the school system is not directly monitoring the content of students' phones, Mt. Hebron Principal Scott Ruehl said with cell phones no longer being taboo, students are more willing to come to him with problems they see on those phones.

"They can say, look, so-and-so is texting this, or tweeting this," he said. "We're able to handle it better because if it's happening during the school day, it's under our realm and we can address it."

Another mother, Rachel Carr, said she understood using cell phones in class for instruction, but was surprised when she learned middle and high school students could use their phones during lunch. That's a question of etiquette and appropriate social skills, she said.

"How am I going to tell my child he can't play with his phone at dinner if the school allows it?" she said. "To be out in the real world, realistically, they shouldn't be on their phones while they're out eating with people."

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