Ontario to ban cell phones in classrooms during instructional time: education minister

“Ontario students need to be able to focus on their learning, not on their cell phones,” wrote Lisa Thompson.

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TORONTO — Cell phones will be banned in Ontario classrooms during instructional time, starting in September, news some suggest is aimed at diverting attention from ongoing criticism of autism funding.

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Education Minister Lisa Thompson said in a statement on Tuesday that a formal announcement would be made soon.

“Ontario students need to be able to focus on their learning, not on their cell phones,” he wrote. “By banning cell phone use that distracts from learning, we are helping students focus on acquiring the foundational skills they need, like reading, writing and math.”

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Some schools already have similar policies, but the province will issue a directive for all public schools for the 2019-20 school year, government sources told The Canadian Press. How to enforce the ban would be up to individual boards and schools.

Exceptions will be made when teachers want to use cell phones as part of their lesson, for medical reasons, and students with special needs.

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Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Federation of Secondary School Teachers, said the policy doesn’t appear to be any different from what is already happening in schools.

I think this has a lot to do with a government that is trying to divert attention from the really serious and considerable concerns of families and education workers.

“The notion that teachers are simply allowing inappropriate cell phone use right now is incorrect,” he said.

“My suspicion is that the only thing he is trying to change is the discussion that is going on about the return of children with autism to schools on April 1 without the proper supports.”

Thompson announced additional money for school boards and teacher training Monday, as hundreds of children may soon enter school because they will receive less funding for therapy. The changes the government is making to the Ontario Autism Program effective April 1 have come under harsh criticism from parents and advocates, who say children will now not receive the levels of therapy they need.

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NDP education critic Marit Stiles noted that a recent Education Ministry memo advised school boards to defer vacancies for retirement and other leave for teachers and other staff until a promised March 15 update.

That could mean education cuts, larger class sizes or a switch to full-day kindergarten, Stiles suggested.

“I think this (announcement) has a lot to do with a government that is trying to divert attention from the really serious and considerable concerns of families and education workers,” he said.

The notion that teachers are simply allowing inappropriate cell phone use right now is incorrect.

The Green Party questioned why a government focused on cutting red tape is introducing “top-down regulation that complicates things for educators on the front lines.”

The Tory government held education consultations last year, and while comments about the sex education curriculum dominated the headlines, comments about a possible ban on cellphones in classrooms were also garnered. Some 97 percent of those polled were in favor of some kind of restriction on phones in class.

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“It was the closest we got in our consultation to unanimity,” a source said.

The Progressive Conservatives had proposed such a ban on their platform during last year’s election campaign.

The Ontario Association of Public School Boards had no comment Tuesday, but in its submission to government inquiries it urged the province to continue to allow school boards to make their own decisions.

“Students must be insightful digital citizens and opportunities must be provided within the curriculum to enable them to safely explore various uses and risks of technology in an intentionally guided and supportive environment,” the association wrote.

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“Schools and teachers have well-established boundaries and boundaries regarding cell phone use in schools and in the classroom, similar to other classroom expectations, which are designed to create positive learning environments.”

The Toronto District School Board used to have a cell phone ban, but reversed it after four years to allow teachers to dictate what works best for their classrooms. The board previously said enforcing a total ban was nearly impossible, saying curbing the use of technology would also put limits on educational opportunities.

Spokesman Ryan Bird said the TDSB encourages the appropriate use of technology in classrooms.

“We leave the use of cell phones to individual schools and classrooms to do what works best for them,” he said.

A 2015 London School of Economics and Political Science paper found that “student performance in high-stakes exams increases significantly” with a mobile phone ban. The improvements were largely seen among students who were typically the lowest performers.

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