The school system is one of many coast to coast that have spent millions of dollars on initiatives aimed at putting computers or tablets in the hands of every student, sometimes as early as kindergarten.
The largest school district in Virginia, Fairfax County Public Schools, announced last year plans to provide Dell laptops to students starting in third grade. Less wealthy school systems have issued bonds to purchase devices, borrowing millions of dollars for laptops, iPads and Chromebooks.
But some parents in parts of the country where the programs are in place want to scale back, saying the devices are harming the way young children learn.
From Northern Virginia to Shawnee, Kan., to Norman, Okla., parents have demanded schools reduce or eliminate use of digital devices, provide alternative “low-screen” classwork and allow parents to say they do not want their children glued to glowing screens. Some families have even transferred their children to schools that are not so smitten with technology.
Maryland health and education officials released guidelines on using digital devices in school that include reminding students to take eye and stretch breaks and that encourage educators to offer collaborative learning assignments on and off the devices.
Virginia lawmakers are considering a similar proposal that would require the state to seek advice from medical professionals to set guidelines on the use of digital devices in schools.
Many parents fear that time spent on screens is eroding the quality of classroom instruction, causing skills such as math and handwriting to atrophy. Others worry that laptops and tablets are damaging children’s eyes and posture. And others have shared stories about students viewing pornographic or other inappropriate material on school-issued devices.
They wonder what is lost when so much of childhood is spent staring at a screen instead of conversing with classmates or spending time more creatively. They say that schools are usurping the authority of parents who may limit screen time at home or monitor their children’s Internet activity on personal devices.
In March, Edwards was called to her 6-year-old son’s school after other students reported seeing scantily clad and topless women on her son’s iPad in class. Her son and a friend, she said, had taken screen shots and saved images of the “naked ladies that they liked” to their devices.
A spokeswoman for the Eanes Independent School District said the school system added more Internet security measures after the incident with Edwards’s son.
The school system prevents students in the fifth grade and younger from searching for images on Google, said Claudia McWhorter, the spokeswoman. The district also prevents those students from accessing YouTube and blocks search results for mature content.
“We know that no technology is impenetrable, but we are constantly working to research new technologies and methods we can implement to further safeguard our students,” McWhorter said.
But Edwards still does not believe her children should use iPads in schools. She and her husband had rented a home in the West Lake Hills suburb for the schools. Now, they are home-schooling their children until they can find a school less reliant on technology.
“It’s causing strife in families because the school districts are infiltrating our parenting styles,” Edwards said. “We’re moving out of the district. We’re getting rid of our house.”
Laptops began appearing in classrooms in the mid-1990s, as their cost began dropping, said Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education who has spent decades researching education technology.
Equipping every student with a laptop quickly became a goal among educators and technology companies, spurred by the idea that performance would soar and therefore assuage concerns raised in a seminal 1983 report about the nation potentially falling behind in science and technology.
“The idea was that when every kid had his or her own device, then academic achievement would go up; both kids and teachers would learn more, faster and better,” Cuban said. “That was the dream of the technology vendors and educators who jumped aboard that bandwagon.”
That never quite came to fruition, and Cuban said the rationale behind bolstering classroom laptop supplies began to change. Nowadays, school systems are more likely to argue that providing students with computers is necessary for developing everyday skills. In communities where laptops are used for standardized testing, educators say students must acclimate to the devices to prepare for exams.
“The question is not whether they’re beneficial or harmful,” Cuban said. “The question is much more focused on how they’re used in the classrooms.”
Research on the effects of computers and tablets on learning is far from conclusive. A 2015 report found that countries making large investments in technology showed no improvements on student performance in reading, math or science.
But a Michigan State University researcher found that when school systems properly supported initiatives providing students with computers, higher test scores resulted.
Jennifer M. Zosh, an associate professor of human development and family studies at Penn State University at Brandywine, co-authored a report on the use of educational apps.
There were 80,000 apps marked “educational” that could be downloaded from Apple’s App Store when the study was published in 2015. Most apps were untested at that time, Zosh said, adding that she does not believe any were regulated.
Zosh said apps that are most effective for learning have four qualities: active thinking, engagement, meaningfulness and social interaction. She sees value in an activity that requires students to create a video, for example, but she does not see the same worth in an app that rewards students with a game for answering questions correctly.
In the Eanes Independent School District, McWhorter, the spokeswoman, said equipping each student with a device has allowed teachers to easily personalize learning materials for students.
She added that iPads are essential for teaching early lessons in coding and other science, technology, engineering and math programs. The devices also help students master state standards for technology, she said.
When Arlington Public Schools in Northern Virginia announced a digital learning initiative, parents were sold on the vision that students would be building Lego robots and writing code, parent Kelly Alexis recalled. More than five years later, she said, the school system pulled a “bait and switch.”
Instead, her sons have used their school-issued iPads to take multiple-choice tests and, from her perspective, not much else.
Her younger son was issued an iPad in second grade, and the mother said she has not seen her son perform the same level of handwriting or reading in elementary school as his older brother, who is in ninth grade.
Alexis and her younger son visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum a few years ago, she said. Standing in the exhibit for Daniel’s Story, which chronicles a young boy’s life growing up in Nazi Germany, Alexis said, her son could not read the handwriting in the diary entries featured on the walls.
Alexis started an online petition calling on the school system to provide a “low-screen” track for students 14 and under that would involve fewer multiple-choice tests while requiring daily writing assignments across subjects and “meaningful” digital learning.
Children were losing basic communication skills, she said in the petition, and their education was being shortchanged.
“This all adds up to a program that launched without a true plan of implementation, or a vision to compensate for basic skills that may have been lost with the transition,” she wrote.
Arlington Public Schools commissioned a study from North Carolina State University’s College of Education that examined the school system’s iPad and laptop initiative. Roughly half of class time is spent on the devices, with elementary school students using them 40 percent of the time and high school students 58 percent of the time, according to the study’s preliminary findings.
The school system gives students an iPad or MacBook starting in third grade.
The devices are commonly used for quizzes and standardized tests, Internet searches and presentations, according to teacher and student surveys. Those who were surveyed said the devices have several advantages — they make learning more interesting, allow students to move at their own pace and boost collaboration.
At Arlington’s Discovery Elementary School, younger students use a classroom set of iPads about 14 minutes a day, fewer than three days a week, according to the school. Students in third grade and beyond use iPads for instruction about 90 minutes each day and are barred from using them during lunch and recess.
Keith Reeves, a technology coach at Discovery, works with teachers and other school employees to develop ways to incorporate technology in class lessons.
Reeves said many complaints he fields from parents are not rooted in research and that devices can enhance learning when used properly.
“Technology, like everything else, has its pros and cons. It’s how you use it,” Reeves said. “My responsibility is to teach children the best I can, using every tool at my disposal.”
But he acknowledged the rollout in Arlington has not been perfect.
The school system does not have a director who oversees the program across the district. Teachers and other staff were not given training for using the devices in class when they were issued more than five years ago, and, Reeves said, the school system has had to play catch-up ever since.
He said he feels Arlington schools suffer from the “absence of educational technology leadership.”
Two years ago, another Arlington parent, Ann Marie Douglass, said her daughter created an elaborate online presentation on Cleopatra for class. She decorated the presentation by playing with font color and sizes, Douglass recalled, but her daughter struggled to answer questions about Egypt.
“It was very fancy, but when I asked her questions about Egypt, she just couldn’t answer them,” she said. “I wanted to see her writing and acquiring more knowledge.”
Glaucoma and myopia, or nearsightedness, runs in Douglass’s family, and she said she fears time spent on devices will damage her children’s eyes. The family’s ophthalmologist has recommended her children spend no more than one hour each day on smartphones, tablets and laptops.
Douglass has asked teachers to limit the time her son and daughter spend on the devices in class, and she has opted her daughter out of using the iPad. She does math homework from a workbook, unlike most of the other seventh-grade students.
A subcommittee on screen use in the Arlington school system that Douglass chairs issued a report to the school board last year suggesting that the system allow parents to ask for a limit on screen time or no computer use at all, scheduling breaks from devices and improving teacher training.
“I want them to be tech savvy. I want them to be exposed to this. I don’t want their data collected. I don’t want their eyes burned out,” Douglass said. “And I want them to still be empowered by the pen.”