Maureen Downey of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution posted this essay on her “Get Schooled” blog by Peter Smagorinsky. He is professor emeritus at the University of Georgia.

He writes:

I recently spoke with an Atlanta metro area high school teacher about the start of the new school year. Her school is like a lot of schools nationally. On the Friday before classes began, after a week of orientation, many teachers did not know their assignments or schedules. To manage the business side of teaching, everyone had to learn yet another new system and its technology.

Once students arrived, there were jitters about safety. COVID-19 remains in the air, and monkeypox is up next. Masks remain optional. After so much remote learning, student behavior doesn’t fit classroom expectations, creating management problems that can be threatening.

The Uvalde school shooting has left many unnerved and waiting for the next incident. Teachers appreciate Gov. Brian Kemp’s initiative to raise pay and provide some money for supplies. But these increases, unfortunately, provide more a surface patch than a deep investment in quality education. With teacher absences up and the pool of substitutes down, teachers are often summoned to cover classes when a colleague is out, shrinking time to plan, grade, and fill out forms.

Yet, in spite of all these problems, after a few weeks of classes, the teacher I spoke with was remarkably upbeat. A new school rule, she said, has already been a “game-changer.” That rule, she believed, has made her school the envy of every school in the country. The school has decided that students can’t have access to cellphones in class.

Imagine what a teenager with unfettered phone access does all day. If you’re a teacher, you don’t need your imagination. You know that you spend most of your time telling kids to get off social media and focus on the academic work. And then do it again. And again.

But kids shouldn’t be blamed for being kids. Parents are often as addicted to phones as their kids. Recent studies have found kids wish their parents would get off their phones and spend more time with them. Many parents have asserted their need and right to text and call their kids throughout the day to check in on them.

Some concerns make sense to me, such as using phones during emergencies or, heaven forbid, an assault. They might come in handy if cellphone footage would help identify who did what in a conflict. If there’s an emergency at home, a parent might need to talk to a child or teen.

Just checking in, though, is disruptive, and creates the need for the phone to always be available. Because it is viewed as a distraction, girls’ clothing is policed in school. But cellphones, which distract students all day, are viewed as a right.

In this school, the administration has listened to teachers. They have created a policy that makes student cellphones unavailable during class. The change has been difficult for kids and their parents, but it’s been a godsend to teachers tired of spending much of their time and emotional energy trying to get kids’ attention.

They also have a way to respond to a student who says, “But my mom says I have to answer when she calls.” They can say, “Tell her to call you when you’re not in class. You can’t have your phone out here.”

I know of another school in North Georgia where the administration has punted the problem to the faculty. Teachers have three options for cellphone access: no phones, phones sometimes, phones all the time. The teacher I know there started in the middle, went to a full ban. Fighting kids over just how long “sometimes” lasts wasn’t working out.

This approach, she says, has its ups and downs. On the one hand, she can teach phone-free and without the distractions they cause. On the other hand, she finds that teachers who allow unlimited phone access tend to take a sink-or-swim approach to kids. If students want to learn, they can put the phone down and pay attention; if they don’t, then that’s their problem. Teachers appear to have the choice to take a callous approach to students who may need personal relationships.

Beyond ceasing to care about whether kids learn or not, there may be other reasons to allow students to be on their phones in class. I just can’t think of any.

Technology has often been considered the present and future of education. Remote learning during the pandemic suggested that it doesn’t solve all problems and creates a few more from a school standpoint. The typical kid seems more interested in TikTok than Shakespeare or algebra. On a remote computer or on a cellphone in class, the fun option is easy to take. And when mom calls, you’d better answer.

But, in at least one area school, the administration has taken responsibility, and teachers don’t have to compete with phones anymore. It’s put a spring in their step and produced an uptick in their kids’ time-on-task and learning.

And it’s something that any school could do.