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Torrington middle schoolers are now required to keep their phones locked away during the school day

 Educators are limiting student cell-phone use.
The Good Brigade/Getty Images
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Educators are limiting student cell-phone use.

Middle schoolers in Torrington are required to keep their cellphones locked away during the school day as of April 25. School officials say the effort is part of a greater plan to help students recover academically and socially from remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. But high schoolers and parents oppose the measure, saying cellphone access is important in emergency situations.

The district used federal COVID relief dollars to pay a company called Yondr to install and set up the middle school program, which will cost $17,875. The high school program will cost $16,175, according to Fiona Cappabianca, chair of the Torrington Board of Education.

Cappabianca said that reading and math proficiencies in middle school are lower than expected for their age group, and she ties that to remote learning during earlier phases of the pandemic.

“Our sixth graders were only at 43% proficient in reading in the winter assessment of [20]22,” she said.

Cappabianca said seventh graders were 40% proficient and eighth graders were 36% proficient in reading, and she saw the same downward trend carried across math scores.

“You have to keep in mind, some of these kids skipped middle school because they were home for COVID and are entering the high school, so all of that social growth wasn’t able to happen.”

The Board of Education instituted the cellphone policy as one part of a bigger attempt to help students come back from learning loss during COVID, Cappabianca said. In addition to the phone policy, the district’s March 2022 budget report shows an almost $150,000 increase in spending over last year on social workers. Teachers are working with that staff to identify which students need the most support, according to Cappabianca.

“You have kids who just have really large gaps academically [and] socially,” she said.

Middle schoolers received their own personal magnetic locking pouch to put their phones in and keep with them. When the students entered the school building Monday, they swiped the pouches at a kiosk and the pouches locked. They unlock the pouches on their way out of the building.

High schoolers protested in February after the Board of Education approved the decision. A Torrington parent started an online petition that same month, expressing worry that the pouches would keep students from using their phones in emergencies or for medical or mental health needs. That parent wasn’t immediately available for comment.

Cappabianca said high schoolers will start the program in the fall; officials decided to push off the start so that graduating seniors wouldn’t have to adjust.

“We only had an issue with two kids out of 1,050 [middle school] kids on day one, so I think that’s really amazing actually,” Cappabianca said.

The district plans to reevaluate the program in June 2023.

Copyright 2022 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit Connecticut Public Radio.

Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Ali reports on the Naugatuck River Valley with an emphasis on work, economic development, and opportunity in the Valley. Her work has appeared on NPR, Marketplace, and The Hartford Courant.