Powhatan School Board votes to approve electronic device restrictions

POWHATAN — The Powhatan County School Board last week approved more restrictive use of non-school electronic devices in schools by students — although not as strict as originally planned.

At the Tuesday, August 9, council meeting, the four council members present voted unanimously to approve student rights and responsibilities for the 2022-2023 school year with more restrictions imposed on the use of non-school electronic devices during school day. Chairman Kim Hymel, who represents District 5, was absent.

The board first discussed a possible change to permitted use of electronic devices at its July 12 meeting, without a vote but all five members expressed support for a change that would allow students to have devices electronics on them but to put them away and now allow them to use the devices. at any time of the school day. This included cell phones, Bluetooth devices, cameras, electronic games and e-readers.

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Concerns raised at this meeting included the distractions these devices represent during class and the use of devices to coordinate inappropriate behavior, such as the vandalism of school restrooms.

However, based on a staff recommendation, the version approved by the board last week gave high school students a bit more leeway. According to the approved policy, middle school students who bring cell phones to school for the purpose of communicating after school hours should keep them quiet and out of the way in a gym locker, schoolbag, or purse. during the school day. The same goes for high school students during teaching hours, but the less restrictive policy now allows them to use these devices only during lunch and transitions.

Tracie Omohundro, assistant superintendent for instruction, said the slight relaxation of permitted use came after focus groups were held with participation from students and teachers. Transitions are defined as the time between leaving one area of ​​instruction and arriving in the next.

“They will set clear expectations in high school as to what it will look like. They will communicate this to students and staff. They will create consequences for the students that will be consistent throughout the building for them,” she said.

Regarding enforcement, Omohundro said the issue of consistency across the board will be a major talking point for Chris Sumner, the high school’s new principal, when staff return to the school. For a policy change like this to be effective, the school must have a “consistent application of this policy,” which teachers say will make it easier for students to comply, she said. James Taylor III, District 4, agreed that it was important to have a policy consistently applied by all staff.

Rick Cole, District 1, said the policy is a good compromise to allow students to use devices during lunch and transitions, but pointed out that if students abuse the leeway given to them, there is always the possibility of returning to a restriction for the full day.

He asked that the high school make it clear to students that “transitions” do not include bathroom breaks during teaching hours or going to see another teacher.

“We need to be very, very clear about what transitions mean for kids, mean for us, and how we’re going to apply that,” he said.

Cole also called for the division to have a personal device game plan in the event of a crisis. Dr. Beth Teigen, the new superintendent, said more information will be released on this topic, but added that in a crisis, students should focus on adults giving them instructions to keep them safe.

Susan Smith, District 2, asked about teachers’ expectations, and Omohundro said they also shouldn’t use non-school devices during the school day for personal use.

Other business discussed at the meeting included:

* The board heard community feedback from several members of the public regarding the division’s updated rights and responsibilities with respect to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Specifically, six members of the public spoke at the start or end of the meeting to object to the school board changing the division’s FOIA officer from human resources director Teri Allison to Nicholas Snead. This was a “receive information” item, so no action or vote was taken at this meeting.

The complaints weren’t specifically about what Snead had done, but about his relationship with his brother Andrew Snead, who was arrested on June 30 for taking indecent liberties with a minor by someone in a custodial or supervisory relationship. Some of those who spoke focused more on the good work done by Allison, while others questioned the impact of Snead’s presence in the position, particularly if there were any future FOIA requests regarding the case.

Teigen pointed out that the FOIA agent does not create material, only helps facilitate the process. She added that her administrative assistant is responsible for following up on every FOIA request.

* Other topics discussed during the public comment periods included the need for fair treatment of students with special needs; ensure that all sports teams have the equipment and facilities they need; a high school student urging the board not to approve comprehensive restrictions on electronic devices; concerns about sexually explicit content being taught in schools or available in school libraries, and concerns about student drug use.

There were also outbursts twice during the meeting from people in the audience. A man appeared to leave alone afterwards, but a woman who was not allowed to speak during the public comment period because she was neither a resident nor an employee of the school spoke during the meeting and was escorted by an assistant at the request of the school board.

* The board voted unanimously to approve the 4-year VPI-class community partnership with Workshop Way – Little Zion Baptist Church. PCPS received seven places for VPI-4 in the Community Partnership Program. The agreement reached by Workshop Way – Little Zion Baptist Church allows the division to increase its membership for students in the preschool program for 2022-2023. The council had no discussion on this subject before the vote.

* The council heard a presentation from Omohundro on summer learning, which included different learning recovery programs, summer schools and summer camps. She spoke about the number of registrations and the structure of the summer school. She spoke about the staff summer learning, which included virtual and in-person professional development and training opportunities. She also discussed facility updates over the summer, transportation planning for the new school year, and hiring efforts — highlighting the monumental task undertaken by human resources staff to fill positions.

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