NYC poised to ban student cellphone use during the school day

NEW YORK — New York City is poised to impose strict limits on cellphone use in local public schools, as restrictions on their use gain traction across the country, Schools Chancellor David Banks indicated Wednesday.

The head of the nation’s largest school district said he plans to make a “big announcement” on the matter in about two weeks. While details of the policy are still under wraps, Banks signaled students could travel to and from school with their devices — but would lose access during regular school hours.

“We want you to be able to bring your phone to school, because the minute that school is over, you need to be in communication with your family,” he told NY1.

“So you will be able to do that, but we’re going to look to have a system when you can’t use it during the school day.”

If that is what Banks announces, New York City would become the latest in a string of cities and states taking action against phones in schools, which the chancellor described as not only a distraction but harmful to kids’ well-being. Youth mental health has deteriorated, and conflicts that started on phones have spilled over to violence during dismissal.

Earlier this month, the school board in Los Angeles — the nation’s second largest school district — approved a cellphone ban. And following new limits on teen social media use, Gov. Kathy Hochul is also planning to introduce statewide school smartphone restrictions that would prohibit devices with internet capabilities.

“We’ve been talking to the medical doctors. Dr. (Ashwin) Vasan, the city’s medical doctor’s been talking about the mental health impacts on kids,” Banks said. “Our kids are fully addicted to these phones. We’ve got to do something about it.”

“Overwhelmingly, for the last three months I’ve been talking about this, everybody has been saying, ‘Take the phones.’ It is a major problem,” he added.

New York hasn’t had a citywide ban since former Mayor Bill de Blasio lifted the policy in early 2015, before the rise of TikTok and the pandemic forced young people inside with few other means of socializing than on their devices.

Since then, the absence of a standardized policy has left it up to principals to design their own, and teachers and staff to apply it.

The result has been a hodgepodge of different approaches, varying between the city’s 32 community districts, schools and even classrooms. While some schools collect phones at the start of each day or require students place their devices in locked pouches, others have implemented general bans that teachers may enforce differently.

Any citywide policy would have to account for challenges with implementing a ban, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew told the Daily News.

“You know, they’ve done it, tried it twice, years ago. It was never successful. It wasn’t successful because the city never had a plan for it. They basically left it up to the schools and teachers to figure it out on their own,” the teachers union boss said.

“Phones have become more and more of an issue inside of the schools,” he added. “But the real issue is if we’re going to do this, then we have to have a plan for the largest school system in the country.”

Banks on NY1 suggested he’s learning from the past. When lifting the ban, de Blasio described his decision as a matter of equality, saying the policy was mostly enforced at schools with metal detectors in low-income neighborhoods. Meanwhile, a cottage industry of cellphone storage crept up at businesses near schools, costing families.

“We don’t want kids to have to pay $1 to leave their phone at a bodega across the street,” the chancellor said.

Mayor Eric Adams at a press conference at City Hall on Tuesday said he was in touch former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who implemented the school cellphone ban, and agreed the devices are a distraction. But not everyone’s on board with a total ban.

“One of the biggest pushbacks, believe it or not, are parents. Some parents really want to have accessibility to their children throughout the day,” Adams said. “9/11 changed the game. A lot of parents were really afraid when they couldn’t reach their children during 9/11.”

“We just have to find a sweet spot. I think we can find that,” he added.