A high school student puts her name on a fabric bag for securely carrying mobile phones

Students at Athens High School are adjusting to a new policy requiring them to carry their mobile devices within a locked bag while on campus. And though the practice is still in its infancy, the early response, while mixed, includes some pleasantly positive feedback.

Members of the Athens ISD trustees heard a report on the high school’s fledgling phone policy during Monday’s monthly school board meeting.

Superintendent Dr. Janie Sims began by explaining one of the factors that led to the current policy was the urging of a school resource officer who pointed to cell phone communications throughout the day as a significant contributor to safety and discipline issues. Additionally, there is the well-documented negative impact of constant connectivity, especially with social media, that leads to lower academic performance and increased social-emotional pressures.

“Students [were] getting 50, 60, 70 notifications in one one-hour period,” Secondary Curriculum Director Nicole Cornish told the board. “What that does to students is something to consider.”

To implement the new policy, AISD partnered with a company called Yondr, which utilizes a secure pouch for storing a phone within. At the beginning of the second week of school, AHS students with mobile devices received pouches and were directed to write their names on them. At the beginning of the day, as they enter the building, students now secure their phones within their pouches. Students then carry the pouches with phones locked inside until they leave campus, at which time the pouches are unlocked using specialized magnets.

Board members heard a report from a conversation with students in an AP statistics class that took place at the end of the second week of the new phone policy. One of those students, senior Shelby McNemar, said she has noticed more face-to-face communication happening. “We talk more,” she said. “I’m pretty quiet, but I realized now I'm talking to more people.”

The consensus among students in the class was almost unanimously “wait and see,” when asked if they approved or disapproved of the policy.

Unsurprisingly, a survey of high school teachers at the end of the second week of the phone policy was overwhelmingly positive.

“Phone usage monitoring has been taken off my list of things to do,” commented one educator on the survey. “There’s no time wasted with discipline, monitoring, collecting, and returning [phones] at the beginning and end of class.”

Another wrote: “I have heard from several students in many of my classes that they ‘low-key like’ not being distracted by their phones.”

AHS Principal Jason Iglehart said the most observable change is during lunch periods. “It’s gone from every student being on their cell phone to a noisy, noisy cafeteria,” he said with a chuckle. “... There’ve been various games of Uno being played. … The student-to-student interaction in the hallways has been great to see.”

He said they have also ordered more clocks to put throughout the building. “I get asked quite often what time it is.”

Sims told the board the phone policy is a trial run. “If we find at the end of the year that this has not worked … we can either go a different route or reverse it,” she said. “It’s not perfect; nothing is going to be perfect. It’s an adjustment for families.”

In other board news:

●      Trustees adopted the lowest combined tax rate — $1.0917 per $100 of valuation — since 1993. AISD Chief Financial Officer Randy Jones explained the reduced rate is largely the result of recent state legislation. Texas will hold an election in November to consider increasing the residential homestead exemption for school taxes from $40,000 to $100,000, a proposal that is expected to be approved. The combined effect of lower rates and lower taxable values will result in reduced tax revenue for 2023 as compared to last year. There is an expectation that a special state legislative session in late September or October will result in the state providing increased funding for schools to replace the shortfall.

●      The board approved continued partnership with Next Step Counseling Services out of Tyler, which provides mental health services for secondary school students at no charge to the students. During the previous school year, licensed counselors with Next Step reported a total of 996 sessions with 97 students.

●      Board members approved out-of-state student travel for the Athens High School band, which is now under the leadership of Director Jeff DuBose. Students will be raising funds, along with assistance from Band Boosters, to perform in May 2024 in the “Art of Foley” Sound Workshop at Universal Studios in California.

●       The board approved continuing workers compensation coverage through the Deep East Texas Self Insurance Fund for the 2023-2024 year and the following two additional years. There is an option to exit at the end of a year with 90 days prior notice.

●      The board approved the renewal of the district’s participation in the Risk Management Cooperative of Texas for the period of Sept. 1, 2023, through Aug. 31, 2024.

●      Due to legislation passed in the recent regular legislative session, school districts may no longer automatically count school holidays as nonbusiness days when responding to requests under the Texas Public Information Act. The legislation includes in its definition of non-business days: weekends, national and state holidays, optional religious holidays, as well as a Friday or Monday before or after a national or state holiday if the holiday falls on the weekend and the governmental body observes the holiday on that Friday or Monday. The legislation allows for an additional 10 designated nonbusiness days per calendar year. Consequently, the board approved Nov. 17, 20-22 and Dec. 20-22, 27-29 of 2023 as nonbusiness days. For 2024, the board approved March 11-14, Nov. 25-26, and Dec. 23, 27, 30, 31 as nonbusiness days.

Unofficial board minutes are posted on the AISD website at this link: https://bit.ly/UnofficialMins. Minutes become official after being approved at the following regular board meeting, and are posted on the AISD website at this link: https://bit.ly/OfficialMins