Parents and teachers all know how distracting cellphones can be for kids, not to mention the concerning impact social media can have on young minds, as recent studies have shown.

Pointing to these negative impacts, a Utah lawmaker believes classrooms should be a device free zone — and he’s running a bill to put such a ban in Utah code.

With HB270, Rep. Trevor Lee, R-Layton, wants to ban both cellphones and smartwatches in K-12 classrooms.

“There are a lot of harmful side effects that we’re seeing from cellphones when it comes to children,” Lee said. “We’ve seen massive increases in mental health problems that are coming from phone use ... in the current public education system.”

Lee continued, “I just don’t find any use or reason why someone should have a cellphone out during a time of lectures or discussion in the class.” He hopes to empower teachers and allow for the law to “back them up” in terms of banning cellphone and smartwatch usage in their classrooms.

Lee said teachers, superintendents and school districts have reached out to support this bill. It’s necessary to ensure that time with teachers is used as efficiently as possible, he said.

Lee addressed the biggest concern he gets from parents and teachers — What happens if a school shooter enters a classroom and kids need to contact their parents?

“First of all,” he said, “a phone does nothing with a school shooter in the classroom.”

For students who are in other classrooms, their devices will be in the room with them, available for students to use during an emergency, Lee said.

Lee also sees the ability Utah teachers have to be armed and carry guns in the classroom as a deterrent.

The bill allows for school boards to discuss and decide how to enforce the policy in their districts. It would enforce different policies in lower and upper grades.

In the elementary grades cellphone usage and smartwatches would be completely banned, placed in lockers or cubbies within the classroom.

Sarah Valle, 17, uses her phone between classes at Cyprus High School in Magna on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. The school’s policy allows for cellphones and other electronic devices to be used between classes, but they must be put away during class. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

In grades 7-12, cellphones and smartwatches would be allowed between classes and during lunch.

Bylynda Murray, principal of Cedar Middle School, is concerned that the bill does not accommodate middle school specific needs, especially middle schools that also serve sixth graders. She pointed out that her school already has a cellphone policy that works well for her students.

“Why does this have to be a law when a lot of schools already have (phone) policies in place?” she asked.

“We have a pretty strict cellphone policy, which we like because of the impacts that social media has on students,” she said.

At Cedar Middle School, no phone usage is allowed through the school day. This includes lunch and time between classes.

“What I see in other schools is students not communicating, not playing with each other, not interacting because they’re on their cellphones,” she said.

“While I agree with why the legislators are looking at it, because I think (cellphones and smartwatches) are a huge distraction,” Murray said, “if this bill were to pass we would have to allow (the devices) at lunch and passing periods, which is a concern for us with middle school students.”

“Often times middle school gets lumped into secondary school, but we’re different,” she said.

This bill however, Lee said, acts as a guideline for schools without cellphone policies, and creates an opportunity for teachers to be backed by Utah law. School boards will be able to listen to their schools’ needs, so current policies of schools shouldn’t change unless there is no cellphone and smartwatch policy.

Murray also had concerns about funding and implementation of the bill.

Phone lockers, she said, can be pricey, and she worries about where these funds would come from and how to supply them in every classroom.

The bill could have a wide ranging financial impact on schools. Legislative fiscal analysts estimate it could cost anywhere between $273,000 to over $10.9 million, or between $15 per classroom to $15 per device, to store them for students, depending on the storage receptacle. Lee said he’s seeking grant funding to compensate schools if the bill is approved.

Murray expressed concerns with having a school board decide how implementation will be executed as well. “Our school board has always let us manage these issues on a school-to-school basis,” she said, but she explained that different schools have different student needs, especially in middle school where mental health issues are so high. In school districts where school boards are more strict, this policy may not work, she said.

Lee hopes that giving school boards jurisdiction to create policy for their schools will allow for further communication between the two on cellphone and smartwatch policy.

Tori Poulsen, 18, center, and Lily Williams, 17, right, laugh during a review game being played in their English class at Cyprus High School in Magna on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.
Tori Poulsen, 18, center, and Lily Williams, 17, right, laugh during a review game being played in their English class at Cyprus High School in Magna on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“Teachers (and school boards) will have the law to back them up,” Lee said.

Jocelyn Cummings, an art teacher from Mountain Ridge High School, expressed similar views as Murray.

“In general, I think this (bill) is a good idea, but there are a lot of logistics that need to take place,” she said.

She said in her classroom, art projects are often turned in using cellphones to take pictures of their assignments to submit them. Banning cellphones in the classroom would force Cummings to rework her teaching policies and environment.

Cummings also questioned the ability of students to place their phones in bins or lockers at the beginning of class as the bill suggests.

“I tried to do that my first year teaching,” she said, and the majority of students would ignore the policy or pretend that they didn’t have their phones.

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“It still serves the same purpose as them not having their phones,” she said. “But I think that would be a fight every day for high schoolers that are glued to (them).”

“It’s going to be rough in the beginning for a lot of these schools,” Lee said, but with time students will understand that the classroom is not the place for cellphones and smartwatches.

The bill has yet to be placed on an agenda for a committee hearing, but Lee hopes it will be discussed soon.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Rep. Trevor Lee lives in West Jordan. He is from Layton.

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