At the news that the city would soon be ending its ban on cell phones in schools, many students and parents reacted with excitement. No longer would students have to pay a bodega to store their phone, concoct schemes to hide or sneak phones into school buildings, or worry about being able to reach their child.

But some educators had a different reaction.

“How do we enforce the use of cell phones in class, if we have 500-plus kids with cell phones who are taking calls or text during class time?” asked Herman Guy, principal at Millennium Art Academy, a school on the Stevenson campus in the South Bronx where metal detectors are in use and the cell phone policy has been strictly enforced. “We have laid a whole new burden on teachers who have to make sure children get the instruction they need.”

“I’ve been in schools where the kids have them and I’ve been in schools where the kids don’t have them,” said Matt Zimblemann, a music and social studies teacher at Manhattan Theatre Lab High School, “and it’s just a lot more distraction when they have them.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña worked to tamp down those concerns as they unveiled the new policy on Wednesday, which will allow principals to craft their own rules on student use of cell phones with guidance from the department and input from parents, teachers and students. They emphasized that schools will have flexibility to design a system that works for students of different ages, and promised to help curb bullying and inappropriate messaging that many worry will accompany the phones into schools.

“I anticipate there’s going to be a very strong list and we’re actually going to give recommendations from the DOE of the things we don’t want to see,” Fariña said. “We want to nip in the bud any cyberbullying.”

The old cell-phone policy was unevenly enforced, and largely unpopular with parents. Students at schools using metal detectors almost never got their phones past the barriers, and many were forced to pay for private storage at local stores, which could cost as much as $180 a year. At other schools, students simply kept their phones in their bags or were allowed to use them, a policy de Blasio compared to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Students retrieve their phones from a store near the Martin Luther King, Jr. campus in Manhattan's Upper West Side.
PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Students retrieve their phones from a store near the Martin Luther King, Jr. campus in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“The previous administration was simply out of touch with the reality of modern parenting,” de Blasio said.

Principals will have until March 2 to decide on a new policy. They can choose to allow students to keep their phones on them during the day, or have them collected at the beginning of the day and returned at day’s end. Principals can also decide whether to incorporate cell phones into classroom instruction.

Michael Wiltshire, principal at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School and Boys and Girls High School, said he is working out how Boys and Girls will deal with cell phones, since it has metal detectors. He is considering collecting phones from students in the morning and re-distributing them at dismissal, but may also allow students to keep their phones. Either way, he said he doesn’t relish the idea of dealing with a new set of distractions.

“It’s going to create problems, especially when students are testing — they say they have a bathroom emergency and they text problems to their friends,” Wiltshire said. “It’s going to affect instruction in a very profound way.”

Fariña said that additional concerns about privacy, cyberbullying, sexting, and incoming calls by parents will be ironed out between the Department of Education, principals, and parents over the coming weeks. She plans to meet with superintendents next week to discuss the new policy, and expects schools to adopt very strict policies, perhaps prohibiting cell phones from campus, during state exams.

At Medgar Evers, Wiltshire and his staff have allowed students to carry cell phones in school with few problems. The challenge now is introducing that policy where phones have been forbidden, he said.

“I expected this day would come,” Wiltshire said.