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Biology teacher Nick Jasiczek remembers when the students in his class at East Ridge High School in Woodbury would beg to do lab work and experiments. Now when he announces such a project, a handful of students don't even lift their gaze from their cellphone screens.

Policing student cellphone use has become more and more challenging, Jasiczek said. More than 95% of teenagers have access to constantly buzzing smartphones, according to a Pew Research Center poll. And today's high schoolers grew accustomed to having — and needing — access to screens when they were learning at home during the pandemic.

"Technology can be a tool in the classroom, but it's also a distraction," Jasiczek said. "Finding that balance is sorely lacking in a lot of schools."

What is that balance?

The question was recently raised in Minneapolis, where the school board is considering a new policy that would allow teachers to define their own rules for each class, with the input of their students. The proposal has gotten pushback from parents and educators.

There's no single standard for cellphone policies in Minnesota schools. Representatives from several metro-area school districts noted that even if they have overarching technology policies, they don't always specify rules for cellphone access during school time. Instead, districts often look to school administrators to set and enforce expectations in their individual buildings.

Osseo Area Schools' policy states that students using a personal device must follow the classroom teacher or a building administrator's policies. And the student handbook for South Washington County Schools allows for flexibility at middle and high school levels, leaving it up to middle school administrators and high school classroom teachers to determine cellphone rules.

The proposed revision to the policy for Minneapolis Public Schools could codify similar flexibility, allowing students to use their cellphones in class "as established by classroom norms set forth by the students and the teacher." It also axes language listing specific consequences, such as having a cellphone confiscated, and refers instead to general student behavior guidelines.

The revised policy, which was written with guidance from representatives of the city's high schools, will be up for a vote at the August school board meeting.

The students advocating for the policy change said they want to be consulted on expectations and finding ways to use technology as a learning tool. And they want parents and board members to know that in many cases, collaboration on such rules is already happening in their classrooms.

But many parents and teachers worry about the growing presence of smartphones in young people's lives and fear that codifying open-ended language could be problematic and confusing for Minneapolis educators. And many, including a student board member, have wondered what the recourse would be if students and teachers can't agree on classroom rules.

Anne Nervig, the parent of Minneapolis eighth- and 10th-graders, wrote a letter opposing the proposed changes to the school board.

Her high school daughter often comes home and talks about peers who spent all class period listening to music or playing a video game. But Nervig said her daughter also told her about classmates who keep their phones on because they care for younger siblings and have to stay in contact with family members to arrange schedules.

"I actually softened my stance after I talked to my kids about the issue," Nervig said. "My kids don't seem to think this policy is radical."

Still, Nervig worries that without clear and consistent expectations, teachers will struggle to limit distractions.

Amy Gustafson, a parent who has worked as a substitute teacher, said parents are often unaware of how rampant cellphone use is during class, even among the top-performing students.

While subbing at Andersen Middle School in Minneapolis last year, Gustafson frequently had students excuse themselves not because they had to use the bathroom but because they were anxious to check their social media in the hallway.

"Parents tend to think schools just have to set a policy," Gustafson said. "But these kids are addicted. It's like you've given your kid crack cocaine and then you are telling the school to make sure they don't take it."

As a parent of a middle schooler, Gustafson said she worries more about cellphone access for preteens than for high schoolers — something that administrators and researchers are considering as well.

Becky Melville, principal at Falcon Ridge Middle School in Apple Valley, said she recently met with other middle school administrators in the district to identify better ways to keep students off their phones during class.

Come fall, the message to all middle schoolers will be "off and away" — their phone must be powered off and in a locker or a backpack.

"The device itself is just a thing," Melville said. "It's more the use and all the things that kids access. That's a complex problem. But we see it disrupting the relationships teachers can build with students."

Danecha Gipson, parent of a student at Olson Middle School in Minneapolis, is considering putting her daughter's cellphone on "do not disturb" mode during the school year next year. But she's also found helpful apps that her daughter, who has dyslexia, uses to aid in her learning.

"It's a gift and a curse kind of thing," she said, adding that she also wants her daughter to have her phone in case of an emergency at school.

"No matter what the policy is, it needs to be communicated to parents and parents have to know their role," Gipson said. "It's got to be a partnership."

Jasiczek, the teacher from East Ridge High, said parents need to model the behavior they want to see in their child and learn to put the phone away themselves.

"As parents, administrators and teachers, we have to engage with this topic and what it means for all of us," Jasiczek said. "This isn't the kids' fault. But it's our responsibility."