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Pasco and Pinellas are introducing new cellphone restrictions for students

A man holds an iPhone 12 with the social media screen open.
Geo Gauvin
School districts in the Tampa Bay area are introducing new regulations on cellphone use.

School districts in the Tampa Bay area are continuing to regulate cellphone use. New policies in Pasco and Pinellas schools will largely bar students from using their phones during class.

Students in Pasco and Pinellas County will have to follow new cellphone rules in the upcoming school year.

Both school boards unanimously approved policies on Tuesday that largely bar students from using their devices during classroom instruction. It's part of an effort to comply with a Florida law passed last year.

The legislation requires school boards to adopt policy that prohibits the use of wireless devices — including cellphones, tablets and smartwatches — during class time and teach students the effects of social media on social, emotional and physical well-being.

Another provision of the bill also bans students from accessing social media through internet provided by the school district.

In Pasco County, students of all grade levels will have to silence their phones during the school day, unless teachers give permission to use them for educational purposes.

The rules apply to extracurricular and co-curricular activities that occur before or after the school day.

High school students, however, will be allowed to use their phones during their lunch period.

In Pinellas County, middle and elementary school students will be required to turn their phones completely off during school hours, unless given teacher permission.

Elementary school students can use their device at the end of the day to coordinate transportation. Middle school students are permitted to use devices before and after the school day, according to the revised student code of conduct.

High school students have a little bit more flexibility. Phones or other wireless devices can be left silent or turned off, and can be used during lunch and passing periods.

Both districts provide exceptions for using phones in the case of an emergency, or if the device is needed in a students' individualized education plan (IEP), which is developed for students with disabilities.

During their Tuesday board meeting, Pasco school board member Colleen Beaudoin pointed out the need to make sure schools could carry out these new restrictions.

"I am concerned about students' mental health and the distraction of phones during instructional time," said Beaudoin. "We have to balance that concern with the very real challenge of enforcement during passing time and lunch."

Pasco Superintendent Kurt Browning assured the board that the district has provided additional staff to help with the enforcement of the new policy. He also alluded to limitations introduced last year, which, according to Browning, received "little pushback."

"We have added allocations to our schools. We're calling them student services instructional assistants, they are there to allow our principals and assistant principals and coaches to be the instructional leaders that they are called to be," said Browning.

Pinellas school leaders said they plan to start a digital citizenship curriculum this fall that will teach students how to use their technology responsibly.

The Hillsborough County School Board is expected to make decisions on cellphone regulations this summer as well.

School districts across the country are adopting stricter policies on phone use.

Florida was the first state to require public schools ban phones during class time, according to a report by Education Week, an education news website. And other states are considering similar measures that limit cellphone use.

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.