Minutes before the start of a recent school day, about a dozen students gathered in the library at Lumen Christi High School in Anchorage, many on their cellphones.
A group at one table chatted while some played the go-kart racing game Mario Kart Tour. At another table, one student scrolled through Instagram while her friend checked grades on an app.
Then the bell rang just before 7:45 a.m., signaling the start of classes at the small, private Catholic school. Students walked to their homerooms, turned off their cellphones and stored them away for the rest of the day.
Starting this school year, Lumen Christi has gone cellphone free.
“There had been just too many disruptions, and too many distractions,” said principal Brian Ross. “We’ve become almost addicted to this technology.”
Lumen Christi’s cellphone-free policy gained national media attention this month, as schools across the country continue to grapple with how to best manage the ubiquitous electronic devices.
According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 95% of teens reported having access to a smartphone and 45% said they were online “almost constantly.”
Fed up, hundreds of schools in others states have turned to lockable pouches to store students’ phones for the day. Others have students keep their devices in lockers or backpacks in “Away for the Day” policies, while some embrace cellphones for school work. At the Anchorage School District, the decision is left up to the individual schools.
At Lumen Christi, teachers described managing cellphones as a complicated balancing act.
Parents often want their children to have cellphones for safety, and the phones can be learning and research tools, they said. But the phones also serve students a steady stream of notifications and on-demand access to games, videos, music and messaging.
In prior school years, Lumen Christi’s cellphone policies varied between classrooms, and students often used their cellphones during class breaks and at lunch, Ross said. Even when phones weren’t allowed during lessons, some students still sent messages under their desks or took long bathroom breaks to check their notifications, said teacher Alison Craig. Issues also arose when students took photos of others and sent them on Snapchat.
“It was a subtle form of bullying going on at all times,” Craig said.
“I think we all collectively spent a lot of energy policing the phones,” said her colleague, Antje Carlson.
This year, Lumen Christi decided the cons of students carrying their cellphones all day outweighed the pros.
Now, the school’s 67 students store their phones in designated shelves or in plastic pockets in their homeroom classes. They can’t retrieve them until the school day is over, unless teachers decide to incorporate the phones into lessons, Ross said. A Catholic theology class, for instance, uses a phone app for prayers, he said. Students also still have access to laptops and tablets.
“It’s easier to manage a student’s time on a laptop than to do it on a smartphone where they can access a multitude of different apps very, very quickly,” Ross said.
About two months into the new cellphone policy, Ross and other school staff said they’ve noticed students talking and laughing more during breaks and at lunch, and increased participation and focus in class.
“It was clear from the beginning that our students are more engaged, focused and interactive in the classroom,” Ross said. “It was a, ‘Wow.' It was very visible."
Anne Gore, administrative assistant and mom of two students at the school, tells parents to call or text her cellphone if they need to reach a student during the school day.
The new policy yielded mixed reactions from students, especially when they first learned of it, according to Ross.
Natalie Grubba, a 15-year-old freshman, said was a little shocked at first, but has quickly adjusted.
“Now that it’s happened, it’s kind of lifted everyone’s spirits and made everyone a lot happier,” she said.
Evan Powell, a 16-year-old sophomore, said his cellphone screen time has dropped from an average of 4 to 5 hours a day to 2 to 3 hours under the school’s new policy.
He feels a lot better, he said, and notices more students talking at school.
“People are a lot more interactive with each other now and everybody really talks to each other rather than just being on their phones,” said Powell, who got his first smartphone around age 12. “Before this cellphone policy, everyone was on their phones during lunchtime. They were on their phone every part of the day, even during class.”
Ross said Lumen Christi will continue to assess whether the new cellphone-free policy has any effect on student tardiness or test scores.
While Ross acknowledged that it’s easier to ban cellphones in a smaller school, he thinks other larger schools should still give it a try even if it’s just for one day a week.
At Anchorage School District high schools, principals said classroom cellphone policies often varied by teacher. Some teachers have pouches similar to Lumen Christi or charging stations to separate students from their devices, they said. Some also incorporate phones into their lesson plans.
At East High, principal Sam Spinella said he didn’t think it was realistic to have a cellphone-free policy. With about 1,800 students, it seemed like an unenforceable rule, he said. He also didn’t think there’d be much support from parents who want to have immediate access to their children.
Currently, Spinella said, East High students can use their cellphones before and after school, at lunch and in the hallways between classes. They can’t use their phones in the classroom, unless it’s approved by the teacher, he said.
“They can be a distraction, but the thing is, cellphones are part of our culture and our society,” Spinella said. “We have to help our students learn how to use them appropriately.”
Other Anchorage public high schools have similar policies.
At Eagle River High School, teacher Valerie Baalerud, a recipient of the 2018 national Milken Educator Award, said her views on phones in classrooms have shifted within the last decade.
At first, she saw cellphones as a novel tool that students could use for research, group projects and quizzes, she said. But in recent years, she has noticed more students using phones inappropriately, and she’s become more strict about them.
In the last week, Baalerud took phones from three students who were texting or using Snapchat in class. But even when she confiscates a phone, she said, some students have a second, back-up device with them. It’s like an addiction, she said. She also worries about the online bullying that students can’t escape from whether at school or at home because they’re with their cellphone all of the time.
“I think at some point we need to have a really difficult conversation as a society about cellphones,” Baalerud said. “We all need to be in this together, the parents and the schools, because if we’re not on the same page, we’re going to fail.”
Teachers at Lumen Christi also underscored that one of the biggest challenges for schools wanting to ban cellphones would likely be getting parents onboard.
Gore, the administrative assistant who has two sons at Lumen Christi, said she has long struggled with the best way to limit screen time for her children who have always lived in a world with Internet. For her, she said, it’s nice to know that for at least the school day her sons have a break from phone screens and can step away from the stream of Snapchat photos, YouTube videos and text messages.
“I’m fairly certain that on many days I sound like nothing more than a broken, ‘get off your phone’ record,” she said. “So it’s a huge relief, I think is probably the best term, knowing that for nearly seven waking hours of every school day they’re completely unplugged.”