‘Addictive Cell Phone Usage’

Fairfax County School Board spurred to action on student cell phone use

Driven by research from the U.S. Surgeon General, the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, doctors across the country, and others that demonstrated "cell phones are destructive in multiple respects," Mateo Dunne, the Mount Vernon District Representative on the Fairfax County School Board, urged his 11 fellow school board members on Thursday, May 9, to take action. There is a "fierce urgency" about countering student use of cell phones in Fairfax County Public Schools.

The school board representatives encountered a torrent of internal discussions regarding the amendments, follow-on motions, and amendments to follow-on motions related to developing a pilot program for the secure storage of cell phones in classrooms and implementation of a strategic communications plan to raise awareness of the policies governing cell phone usage across high schools. As voting ensued, the board approved five follow-on motions to the Student Rights and Responsibilities, detailed in the agenda item on BoardDocs. 

It began with Amendment #1, proposed by Dr. Ricardy J. Anderson (Mason District) and seconded by Kyle McDaniel (Member-at-Large), and ended with approved Amended Follow-on motion #2, a resolution directing “the Superintendent to develop alternatives to existing FCPS practices governing student cell phone usage in public schools.”

During the discussion, McDaniel noted that there had been a lot of conversation 48 hours before the meeting, and the board had worked together to develop proposals. He thanked Dunne for working on the matter. McDaniel reported that multi-billion-dollar companies like Google, Facebook, and Meta devote “significant resources to studying the neurological effects of particular aspects of their apps, of cell phone usage, to make it addictive at a time [when] children are very vulnerable to addiction.”

Anderson added, “We have a problem, and we need to find some resolutions.”

Rachna Sizemore Heizer (Braddock District) clarified that data from the pilot and stakeholders' input would support the development of additional options for the board when it considers Student Rights and Responsibilities.

Approved Amended Follow-on motion #2 says that for elementary, middle, and high schools, there would be "a prohibition on student cell phone usage during the school day, with appropriate exceptions for instructional activities and ... for students with IEPs, 504s, or medical conditions." Additionally, the options developed would incorporate stakeholder input, best practices, and lessons learned from other school divisions, with the superintendent presenting the options to the board by March 1, 2025. However, by majority vote, the school board must approve options that the superintendent would implement.

“Cell phone usage in schools is rapidly becoming a critical issue,” McDaniel said. “We need to know what our options are, what we’re dealing with, what works, and what doesn’t.” McDaniel asserted that consistent enforcement of the existing rules is necessary. In his Follow-on Motion #2, McDaniel urged that the superintendent work directly with principals and school-based staff to reinforce the school board's expectation of always adhering to the cell phone policy.

Vice Chair Melanie Meren (Hunter Mill Representative) questioned the semantics of the related amendments the board was considering. She said the board would be directing the superintendent to create “policies,” yet “policies” are under the board’s purview. “I’m very sensitive about using policies … We ask the superintendent to help us create it.” 

Meren said she preferred the word practices in this case to policies and asked Division Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid if she was comfortable with the language. 

“It is true I work on regulations,” Reid said. “But I also support policy work. So I will do as the board wishes.”

The approved Amendment to Follow-on motion #2 changed the term policies to practices.

Lastly, the board approved Amended Follow-on motion #2 by Dunne and seconded by Anderson, with 11 representatives voting yes and Seema Dixon, Sully District Representative, abstaining.

During an earlier discussion, Dixon said she wanted to wait and see details of the pilot study and if they solve the enforcement issues. Seema added that the sitting principals of FCPS told her that taking cell phones away “is not a great idea.” 

“Especially high school students, that just strikes this off for me.”

Following the meeting, McDaniel said in a release, “We need to know what our options are, what we’re dealing with, what works, and what doesn’t. This pilot program will answer these questions and give us invaluable data to inform future rules around cell phone usage in our schools.” He added, “We need to do a better job communicating the existing rules. That’s exactly what this motion does."