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Many educators are facing this dilemma: Are cellphones a distraction in the classroom or is that outweighed by their educational potential?

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A Toronto middle school is banning the use of cellphones in classrooms and hallways after it found that the devices were interrupting lessons and being used inappropriately.

Bill Vatzolas, the principal at Earl Grey Senior Public School, sent a note home to parents that said starting next week, students will not be allowed to bring their cellphones to class or access them in the hallways. Students are allowed to use their devices during the lunch hour, he said, but they will not be allowed to access social media, take pictures and videos, or text – which a board spokesman admitted would be difficult to police.

"If you need to contact your child during the school day, we ask that you call the office and we will make arrangements for your child to connect with you," Mr. Vatzolas wrote in the letter to parents.

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"This policy change is the result of conversations with our staff, parents and students as we collectively look to minimize distractions in the classroom and reduce the inappropriate uses of the devices during the school day."

The principal's actions come at a time when educators are leery of the use of cellphones in schools: Are they a distraction in the classroom or is that outweighed by their educational potential?

School districts generally leave it up to principals and teachers to develop their own policies on the use of cellphones. There have been some concerns around students being distracted during lessons and the devices being used as a tool for cyber bullying. But many educators have also been allowing students to use cellphones for research in the classroom, collaborating on Google Docs and as a way to teach teenagers about digital responsibility.

Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the Toronto District School Board, said some parents at Earl Grey were concerned about cellphone use in school and approached the principal. Mr. Vatzolas then spoke with school council and staff and decided on limiting the use of the devices, Mr. Bird said.

"I think it's reactive and proactive. Part of it is to reduce the inappropriate negative use that had occurred a limited number of times … and so it doesn't become a further issue," he said.

Mr. Bird said that both the school and the school board maintain that the use of technology is important to students.

"Cellphones will still be used for educational purposes, when appropriate. But I think it really does cut down on the distraction that they have become in some cases," he said. "When teachers are trying to teach a lesson and they look out, and you've got a quarter of the class with their heads down, texting, that's an issue. That's what they're trying to cut down on in this case."

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In 2011, the TDSB, Canada's largest school board, reversed a four-year-old ban on cellphones in the classroom, leaving it up to individual principals to develop their own policy on cellphones. New York's department of education also lifted its ban on cellphones in schools two years ago after it became unpopular among parents, who worried about not being able to contact their children.

Wade Smith, principal at Citadel High School in Halifax, said cellphones allow many students to have access to their parents and their employers. The "innovative teachers," he said, are building cellphones into their lesson plans and allowing students to use the devices to research. "I think you have to find that balance," Mr. Smith said.

Antonio Vendramin, district principal at the Surrey, B.C., school board, said that on a recent visit to a high school, he was impressed that students knew when it was appropriate to use their phones and when to put them away.

Mr. Vendramin said that banning cellphones will drive their use underground as students will find other ways to use them. Rather than restricting cellphones, he said, schools should look at setting guidelines around appropriate use and harnessing students' social connectivity to keep them engaged in learning.

"I firmly believe … we have to be relevant and we have to make sure kids are developing the skills to use technology appropriately," Mr. Vendramin said.

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