State Bill on Safe Use of Digital Devices in Classrooms Makes Progress in Legislature

State Bill on Safe Use of Digital Devices in Classrooms Makes Progress in Legislature

Local parent advocates welcome advance of proposal to create best practices for health and safety

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Credit: Gyfjonas via Wikimedia Commons

Local parents concerned about the proliferation of screens in the classroom are celebrating a win with the advance of a state bill aimed at guiding educators in the use of digital devices.

The proposal, offered up by Del. Steven Arentz of the Eastern Shore, would call on the State Department of Education and Maryland Department of Health to create health and safety best practices for incorporating these devices in schools. On Wednesday, the legislation sailed through the House of Delegates with unanimous approval, to the delight of Gaithersburg mother Lisa Cline.

“This bill will do what the school system cannot do. This bill will pull the health experts in on the conversation. Our Board of Education and all of our fantastic educators have a job of educating the kids. They are not the health experts,” said Cline, who helps lead a subcommittee on safe technology for the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations.

Cline pointed to concerns about the health effects of exposure to blue light emissions from screens and said there is insufficient evidence that technology improves academic performance for most children. Cindy Eckard, a parent advocate from Queen Anne’s County, cited evidence that digital devices might harm students’ eyesight and has been linked to childhood obesity.

“We’re seeing obesity as an epidemic across this country because kids are strapped to computers,” Eckard said.

The legislation sponsored by Arentz didn’t at first receive support from the Montgomery County school board, which took no position on it during a February meeting. The measure at first required state agencies to write guidelines that school districts would have to consider adopting, and the board’s legislative aide, Patricia Swanson, wrote in submitted testimony that the school system couldn’t fully respond without first seeing these recommendations.

“While well-intended, the requirement to consider and adopt proposed guidelines and procedures for the use of digital device may, ultimately, contradict the expectations of MCPS [Montgomery County Public Schools] to address the increased reliance on and demand for digital tools in schools,” she wrote.

But a few adjustments to the bill and the continued advocacy of Cline and others persuaded Swanson and the school board to take another look at the proposal. Last week, the board voted to support the legislation, which was amended to call for “best practices” rather than guidelines.

The proposal isn’t expected to saddle local school districts with any additional expense, since the risks associated with digital devices can be mitigated without cost by stretching or taking breaks, according to a legislative analysis. The school districts aren’t obligated to follow the best practices, which would be available to them by mid-2019, under the bill.

Now that the bill has passed the House, it will head to the Maryland Senate for consideration, and Swanson said she will rewrite and resubmit the school board testimony on the measure.

Arentz said input from Eckard, a constituent, was a driving factor in his decision to submit the bill, but he said he’s also thought about the potential effects of digital devices on children. Speaking from experience as a former Queen Anne’s County commissioner, Arentz said local leaders in past years have focused on adding state-of-the-art technology to schools. Now, Arentz said, it’s time to make sure school systems are aware of all the potential impacts of digital devices and understand how to use them safely.

Cline said if it were up to her, her son, a fifth-grader at Fields Road Elementary School, would have a technology-free education, although she understands that there are a wide range of viewpoints on the subject. However, she said many parents come to her with concerns about the amount of time their children spend on social media or using devices in other ways.

“There’s a whole basket of issues that come my way, and they all kind of interrelate in that they are a distraction from real life,” she said.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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