Nova Scotia government can easily ban smartphones in schools despite naysayers

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Appeared in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, May 29, 2024
Nova Scotia government can easily ban smartphones in schools despite naysayers

If policymakers in Nova Scotia want to ban smartphones in schools, they don’t need to reinvent the wheel—affordable solutions are at their fingertips. But Premier Tim Houston and Education Minister Becky Druhan must let the evidence guide their decisions.

Currently, the province’s public schools allow smartphones in classrooms, which teachers say create significant distraction. But one Halifax independent school recently introduced Yondr lockable pouches for students in grades 7 and 8 (and soon grades 6 and 9) to lock their phones for the school day. The pouches, which cost $25 each, are stored in a plastic divider at the back of the classroom, remain locked during breaks, and are only unlocked when students leave school.

The results have been “night and day.” According to students at the school, the ban removed chaos and distraction from their own phones and from other kids. Teachers say it increased face-to-face socialization and outdoor physical activity, and relieved teachers from nagging and surveilling in class.

Anyone who has attended a concert or comedy show, which is recorded for a streaming service, has been required by security to lock up their phones in a pouch. Most likely, these attendees enjoyed the show a lot more, distraction-free. At the end of the show, security unlocks the pouches. It’s simple and it works.

So why hasn’t the Houston government implemented this policy provincewide?

When asked about using pouches in public schools, Ryan Lutes, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said they likely wouldn’t work because there are too many students in some schools. It’s curious, though, how enormous shows can employ this policy yet the immediate reaction from the teachers’ union is that it wouldn’t work.

Indeed, due to Nova Scotia classroom caps, grades 3 to 6 are capped at 25 students; grades 7 to 9 at 28 students; and grades 10 to 12 at 32 students, with flexibility. But even if classes were capped at 50 students, students storing their phones in pouches or lockers at the start of the school day and getting them back at the end of the day (with very few exceptions) seems feasible, especially at the elementary level. Logistics become trickier in high school, but it’s clearly doable. The benefit of focus during classes dramatically outweighs potential challenges.

This also isn’t a matter of cost. At nearly, $17,000 per student in 2020/21, Nova Scotia spends more tax dollars per student in government public schools than any other province in the country. The teachers’ union has said teachers support some restrictions but because some include devices in their lessons there shouldn’t be a blanket ban.

But the research on smartphone distraction is undeniable. Data from the Programme for International Student Assessment shows smartphone distraction creates anxiety in youth and hurts math scores measurably. Eight in 10 Canadian students report being distracted by smartphones in math class and about 60 per cent of students across the OECD say they are distracted by the smartphone use of other students in class.

This means that allowing kids to have their phones in their pockets on silent, as with Ontario’s incoming smartphone policy, isn’t good enough. While there should be some exceptions for kids with unique medical needs (e.g. monitoring blood sugar levels), by allowing some students to have smartphones in class, we’re guaranteeing that other kids will be distracted and see their academic performance suffer.

One study showed that it takes 20 minutes for kids to regain focus on what they were learning after being distracted. Pair that with their not-yet-developed brainpower to resist buzzing notifications and a complete smartphone ban makes complete sense.

The more uniform the ban, the better—one policy, with few exceptions, across all Nova Scotia classrooms, empowering teachers to enforce the ban so they’re supported by their principals and the provincial government (even in the face of difficult students or parents with concerns).

Finally, the ban can’t come soon enough. Per PISA test data, in the last two decades Nova Scotia student math scores have declined the equivalent of more than two years of learning—and fall far below the national average in math, reading and science.

We must turn the tide on academic achievement of our kids, while protecting their mental wellbeing. The Houston government can and should ban smartphones in classrooms. The policy solutions already exist. The only ingredient needed is leadership.

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