Philadelphia School District delays vote on $5 million contract to lock up student cell phones

The Philadelphia School District has postponed a vote on a $5 million deal to buy bags that enclose students’ cellphones during class.

Officials had been willing to enter into a five-year contract with Yondr Inc., a San Francisco-based company company that manufactures them individual, sealed magnetic pockets that limit student access to their phones during class time.

But Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. pulled the school board order last week that would have given the mandate to allow all schools to buy — but not force it the bags to create “cell-free school zones”.

» READ MORE: Philly schools will vote to spend $5 million to keep students’ phones locked up

The drafted contract would have cost the school system up to $5 million, but the actual purchase amount would depend on the number of schools that choose the Yondr system. Schools that choose to purchase the bags would pay for them from their own budget.

School Board President Joyce Wilkerson said at the school board meeting that Watlington wanted an opportunity to discuss the potential purchase with school leaders.

“Once we’ve had the opportunity, we’ll revisit it at a later date,” Watlington said at the meeting, which took place last Thursday.

While few argue cell phones are a distraction that often hinders learning, the contract has drawn criticism from some staffers and district observers, who say the money should be issued elsewhere. Also, many people, including parents, believe that students need unhindered access to cell phones, especially given the gun violence crisis in Philadelphia.

At some schools where Yondr bags are already being used, Administrators have said the devices have made significant positive changes, taking students’ attention away from their phones and back to the classroom and positive social interactions with one another.

But teachers at a district school where they’ve been using them for more than a year say the bags, while initially helpful, are now virtually useless. After what they thought was a redesign, the pouches can now be easily defeated by slamming them on a hard surface a few times.

» READ MORE: Ban cell phones or not? Without them, schools see more learning, fewer fights, and quieter hallways.

Prior to the district’s system-wide proposal, this high school paid for bags for all of its students, but “at this point, we almost don’t even use them,” said one teacher. “In the class they will have maybe four or five children. Everyone else just has their cell phones outside. That seems like a really irresponsible purchase.”

Students at this high school are still required to put their phones in their pockets at the start of the school day, but that’s just for show, said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

“We might as well have manila binders for how effective these bags are,” the teacher said. “The phones are in their pockets, the phones are in their hoodies.”

According to a school district spokesman, Yondr is releasing a new pouch in December that should address some of the concerns about tampering. Schools that currently have bags will get the new ones, she said.

Marissa Orbanek, the spokesperson, said the Yondr bags are “part of a multi-pronged approach to increasing student engagement. Whether students can lock or unlock their bags, students are learning… that it is not appropriate to hold their phones in school or class.”

But Yondr’s director of educational partnerships said the bags are “deliberately constructed so that they are not indestructible. Rather, it is a reminder that now is not the time or place to bother with your phone.”

Yondr bags are used by many of the country’s major school districts, including New York, Detroit and Boston, said Julia Gustafson, Yondr’s director of educational partnerships. In Philadelphia, just over 50 schools, including charters, are using the bags and another 26 are pending approval, she said. The company also provides training for school teachers and helps them develop their phone policies.

Another teacher from the same school where Yondr pouches were abused asked why the district would spend so much money on an unproven technology.

“How can you have disposable funds when you haven’t even taken care of the basics? I think they should really spend the money on student services,” the teacher said.

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