Quebec students forbidden from using cellphones in classrooms after winter break

Quebec’s new rule banning cellphones in classrooms will be in effect when students return from the holiday break, making the province the second to implement such a measure, after Ontario.

Many Quebec schools already had rules limiting cellphones in classes before Education Minister Bernard Drainville introduced the ban in August, but some child advocates say it’s in the interest of children to make restrictions as tough as possible.

Days ahead of Drainville’s announcement, Etienne Bergeron, a high school teacher from Warwick, Que., launched a petition calling on the government to forbid cellphones anywhere on school property.

“I would have gone a lot further,” Bergeron said in an interview, comparing his petition to what the province ultimately decided to do. “What I want is all personal devices banned in schools — even in the corridors, the public spaces, the libraries, everywhere.”

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If a teacher wants students to use cellphones for a pedagogical purpose, he said, the lesson “would have to be something well-defined.”

Bergeron says he’s not anti-technology — he manages his school’s creative laboratory and teaches students about programming, music, and video game design, but he says his lessons use digital tools to expand the mind, not to surf aimlessly online.

“The reality is when young people are on the phone, they are on TikTok, they’re playing games,” Bergeron said. “I’m convinced it’s not in the mission of Quebec schools to leave our young people in front of these devices that literally make them anti-social.”

Quebec’s Education Department says that by Dec. 31 all schools must have a policy restricting the use of cellphones in classrooms. It will be up to individual school boards to come up with penalties for students who don’t follow the rules.

Some boards, including the province’s largest French-language one — Centre de services scolaire de Montreal — and the English Montreal School Board, have had rules for some time prohibiting cellphones in class outside of authorized lessons.

In Ontario, teachers unions have lamented that their province’s 2019 ban is not being enforced and that cellphones pop up routinely in classrooms. At the Toronto District School Board — the largest school board in Canada — chair Rachel Chernos Lin introduced a motion to revisit the issue in January and come up with a new, robust policy to ban cellphones.

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“I would like to see something that has some teeth in it,” Chernos Lin said. “But ultimately ? I hope we will create a culture around cellphone use that is different than what we have now.”

Joel Westheimer, a University of Ottawa education professor, isn’t surprised the Toronto board wants to reopen the debate, calling Ontario’s rule “an extremely imperfect one because it wasn’t written in a way that was really going to make it happen across the province.”

The issue of cellphones has been on the front burner since a UNESCO report in July found that they can disrupt learning; Drainville has said that report spurred him to act.

Several countries have gone further than Quebec and Ontario. In 2018, France banned phones on school grounds for those under the age of 15, while China banned phones for schoolchildren in 2021. The U.K. government announced in October it would issue guidance to support head teachers who want to ban phones in schools, adding that its measure would be in line with similar bans in Italy and Portugal.

“Lots of jurisdictions around the world have implemented cellphone bans and have found very positive outcomes from that. Students are less distracted, they report more engagement, and there’s even been some measures of academic growth and also less loneliness,” Westheimer said.

In Quebec, Melanie Laviolette, president of parent group Federation des comites de parents du Quebec, is welcoming the rules.

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“What we hope is that our kids are in the best position to learn, so not having TikTok at their fingertips is a good thing,” Laviolette said.

Katherine Korakakis, head of the English Parents Committee Association of Quebec, called the government’s decision a “missed opportunity” that avoids looking at issues like technology addiction, media literacy or fake news and focuses instead on punitive measures.

“I think courses on being a digital citizen, how to use technology, talking about addiction, talking about this type of stuff with the students will make a much bigger impact than taking away a phone,” she said.

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