The no-cost option that could improve Alaska education

When it comes to education, better performance usually comes at a cost. Many of the tried-and-true methods of improving student outcomes — smaller class sizes, more hands-on learning opportunities, more one-on-one instruction time, higher-quality extracurricular offerings — have significant price tags. And with budget pressure on both the state and municipal levels, Alaska’s public schools are having to do more with less. But there’s at least one way local schools could improve students’ in-class experience: A cellphone ban during instructional time.

In many classes and schools throughout the Anchorage School District and Alaska at large, cellphone use is already discouraged, but without a blanket policy in place, the devices creep into the hands and attention spans of students, distracting them from the lessons at hand. That’s by design: App designers — particularly those building games and youth-focused social media platforms such as Snapchat and TikTok — have become ever more adept at increasing phone users’ screen time. The urge to pick up a device and check in many times per day can be compelling. That’s bad news for teachers, whose lessons are being ignored in the name of continuing a Snapchat streak.

A cellphone ban is already in place this year at Anchorage private school Lumen Christi, where teachers say they’ve already noticed positive changes in student engagement and class participation. And realistically, the negative impacts of students not having access to phones during class time — in other words, the way every generation in school before the year 2000 was educated — are nonexistent.

So why aren’t formal cellphone bans across the district already in place? Pushback against them has come from a place that might surprise you: parents themselves. Unable to fathom what might happen if they were unable to contact their children at every moment of the day, parents have tended to push back hard when schools have contemplated similar policies. The oft-cited “need” to get in touch with students in the event of an emergency or natural disaster is comically overblown: School shootings, though tragic and all too frequent, are incredibly unlikely to affect an individual student: The 2018 incident outside Denali Montessori School in Anchorage, in which one person was injured, was the only event classified as a school shooting in the state in the past 20 years. And as for natural disasters, last November’s magnitude 7.1 earthquake provides real-world proof that in such a situation, having phones stowed in backpacks or lockers would not have made a meaningful difference with regard to students’ ability to contact parents promptly.

Even with a cellphone ban in place, there will be limited circumstances in which use of the devices will be appropriate and sanctioned. Lumen Christi, for instance, allows for cellphone use when teachers choose to incorporate them into lessons. But the use of phones should be the exception rather than the rule during school hours.

If we’re honest with ourselves, students and adults alike could stand to spend more time away from our phones. As adults, we rely on our willpower to set limits on our own use of devices, and all too often we fail. How can we expect our children to do better? Without policies to help reduce the pull of phones, we’re setting our students up to fail. The Anchorage School District — and school districts across Alaska — would be well served by the implementation of a ban on phone use during instructional time.