Ontario to ban cellphones in classrooms. What’s changing and how will it work?

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Ontario limiting cellphones in classrooms
RELATED: Students will face limited cellphone usage come September as new measures are put into place across Ontario. As Caryn Lieberman reports, this announcement is receiving mixed reviews – Apr 29, 2024

The Ontario government says a provincewide approach to banning cellphones in classrooms will bring uniformity to the rules on devices and improve student concentration as it leans on parents to make the new policy possible.

On Sunday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced new rules for vaping and cellphones that will be introduced at schools across the province when the academic year begins.

New policies will order phones into silent mode and out of view during school hours, while teachers will also be told to confiscate vape products from students caught using them and to immediately notify their parents.

“We have heard loud and clear from parents and teachers alike that cellphones in classrooms are distracting kids from learning,” Lecce said Sunday.

The union representing elementary school teachers in Ontario, however, said it is opposed to a provincewide ban, which it has called a distraction.

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What are Ontario’s new cellphone rules?

The new rules will mean that, from September, every public school in Ontario will have the same policy in place regarding cellphones.

Those uniform rules will tell students to keep their phones on silent mode and hidden from view.

For children in kindergarten to Grade 6, those rules will apply for the entire school day. Students in grades 7 and above will be allowed to use their devices between classes or at lunch but will be expected to observe the ban during teaching time.

Exceptions can be made for students who ask permission to make a call, for example to a parent, but the default rule will be for phones to be kept away. To set an example, teachers and classroom assistants will also be told not to use their phones unless it is for a task directly related to work.

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“The teachers want the kids to pay attention, it’s as simple as that,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said of the ban at an event on Monday. “It’s not that complicated: Don’t use the phones.”

Students who don’t comply with the rules will have their phones taken away “immediately,” the government said.

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The province also said it will be banning access to social media during the school day both on school board devices and for anyone using the local Wi-Fi network. The ban cannot, however, be applied to students who use data plans on their own phones.

How will the rules be enforced?

The new rules will leave enforcement in the hands of teachers and schools, with policies in place to send the information back to parents, including through report cards.

A government source stressed that involving parents in the process by telling them about cellphone usage and allowing for phones to be confiscated meant the issue would be a joint venture between home and school.

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The source said the government was asking parents to get involved and support the measures, with a focus on changing the culture around distraction and phone use in schools.

“The principal and the teachers run the school and they’re obviously very responsible and they’re going to be responsible,” Ford said Monday, suggesting he had seen numbers that indicate widespread support.

April questions sent out by Campaign Research, a company that conducts polling for the Progressive Conservative Party, asked if people would “support or oppose some restrictions on students using their personal cellphone while they are at school.” The survey also asked about restrictions on phones during class time and rules demanding students put cellphones in their bags, among other questions on the topic.

“It’s staggering numbers, the numbers I’ve seen, with parents supporting the ban because they want their kids to go to school and learn, not to be on social media and fiddling around with their cellphones during class,” Ford said.

“Outside of class, all the power to them. You can do whatever you want. But while you’re in learning, you’ve got to learn.”

Click to play video: '‘Teachers want kids to pay attention,’ Ford says as Ontario limits cell phone use in schools'
‘Teachers want kids to pay attention,’ Ford says as Ontario limits cell phone use in schools

David Mastin, first vice-president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, told Global News elementary teachers had not been asking for an all-out ban on cellphones and said there were concerns that proper phone usage could now not be taught.

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“We would expect in our classrooms, through school boards’ implementation of the code of conduct, that we address these things in a responsible and an appropriate way,” he said.

“The outright ban prevents that in a way; it doesn’t allow school boards or teachers to properly engage with students or teachers on how to appropriately use these devices.”

The new rules will set a basic expectation around the action that is supposed to be taken when someone is caught using a phone during forbidden hours, but local boards will be able to implement their own progressive discipline measures for repeat offenders.

What measures were in place before?

Almost five years ago, in a news release entitled “Ontario takes action to focus on learning,” the Ministry of Education announced it would be “restricting the use of cellphones” during class.

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The cellphone restriction, however, was not a provincewide edict and left school boards to sort out among themselves how it would be applied. Years later, many boards have not implemented policies to ban cellphones.

The government said some boards had taken the 2019 restrictions to heart with the implementation of quick policies, while others had not. The result, according to the province, was a patchwork of different rules around Ontario.

Asked if it already had rules in place that banned cellphones, a spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board — Ontario’s largest school network — said officials would need to go through the details of the province’s plan.

“We will have to review the specific details to determine how it will impact TDSB policies,” a spokesperson told Global News.

In other places, the patchwork extends to the school level.

At the Peel District School Board, some individual schools have policies in place that allow parents or students to sign up for a child’s phone to be held for the school day.

Those policies have been developed at the local school level by principals and signed off by local superintendents but don’t apply to every school run by the board. The voluntary phone hand-ins at some Peel schools, one source said, came after pressure from parents to see work at individual schools done to tackle distractions in the classroom.

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ETFO first vice-president Mastin said elementary teachers in his union felt the patchwork approach from school boards was working fine without the government stepping in.

“We feel (it) is far better addressed at the school board level,” he said.

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