An Open Letter to Maryland State Legislators: Digital Device Health & Safety Bill — A Win-Win

An open letter from Joanne C. Simpson, BCPS parent, college educator, freelance journalist, to Maryland State Senators on the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee 3/14/17

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration. Please support proposed Senate Bill 1089: Health and Safety Guidelines and Procedures – Digital Devices.  This is especially important with the vastly increased use of new devices such as tablets, laptops, and smartphones, as well as screen-based learning and testing in schools.

You might have been told recently that not enough is known about health or safety measures in this arena, especially from school board representatives who may not be aware of what is already available. Yet current medical research clearly indicates the need for digital device safety guidelines in schools, and offers actual tips and training.

Medical and professionally informed guidelines would help prevent ergonomic and other long-term fallout: such as computer vision syndrome, neck pain, etc. (see lists and research below). Many of these devices are being used by children as young as 6-years-old in various school districts.

Support for this bill would be a win-win.

A parallel House bill has already gained steam:

“Requiring the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in consultation with the State Department of Education, to develop health and safety guidelines and procedures for the use of digital devices in public school classrooms; and requiring each county board of education to implement specified health and safety guidelines and procedures for the use of digital devices in public school classrooms beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.”

Maryland, which offers some of the best public school districts in the nation, should be a leader on safe student use of tech in classrooms. Based on in-depth research during the past year, here are a few citations for quick reference. Note especially the school-related work of Karen Jacobs, Clinical Professor, Department of Occupational Therapy at Boston University, one of the primary experts in the field.

For example, one six-year cohort study led by Jacobs, cited* below, concludes: “Participatory ergonomics training and use of external devices may have significant health benefits for children involved in notebook programs who have daily exposure to this technology for school and leisure purposes.”

Some of the issues cited by children using the devices: neck and shoulder pain, back pain, and other musculoskeletal discomforts, as well as “visual symptoms such as dry/watery eyes and sore, tired eyes during the study.

As you are likely aware, Baltimore County Public Schools is pursuing a district-wide digital initiative others expect could be replicated around the state of Maryland. This laptop-per-student program (grades 1-12) has a number of extreme cost burdens — approaching $300 million for the first several years alone — and other problems so far, including declining county PARCC standardized test scores. It’s titled Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, or STAT.

STAT and similar digital initiatives, like those in Montgomery County Public Schools and neighboring Prince George’s County, translate to increased student screen time. Some tech upgrades and digital options in schools are needed, when reasonable and balanced. Safety measures are a digital equity issue as well, because many children in less affluent school districts also have reduced access to appropriate health care screening or mitigation.

You might hear arguments that there’s no evidence of problems, but as you can see that is not true. You might hear pushback about mandates, yet when children are at risk –wrist pain, retinal issues, or behavioral issues related to gaming curricula, etc.– it is our government’s role to serve its people, and to help keep safe the hundreds of thousands of families in Maryland. 

Unfortunately, many school systems are entrenched in digital initiatives and contracts that rely on corporate vendors. As a result, legislators and others might encounter pressure from the education technology industry to halt such bills, as these companies would like to increase student screen time to enable for-profit digital curricula and ongoing embedded assessments or online tests. I have no problem with such companies per se, yet should corporate priorities influence how we oversee the health of the next generation? There needs to be consistent oversight. (School-edtech ties also can prove problematic on a number of levels.)

See this story re: some of those concerns, and possible school leader bias regarding tech.

In terms of overall safety, can much be done? Yes: screen-time guidelines, and limits on per-day usage, are advisable. Ergonomic education for teachers. Frequent breaks. Better posture training. Appropriate lighting. Proper screen height. Supports for neck or forearms. See the in-depth work by advocate Cindy Eckard, as well as researchers from Harvard University, the Curtis National Hand Center, The University of Washington, among others via additional links and quotes below.

Feel free to share this information with fellow legislators and others. Baltimore County Public Schools’ health council offered a few suggestions but has not addressed this issue adequately–which is why we can’t rely on county school systems to do what is appropriate. We also can’t rely on the vagaries of information and medical resources available to various school districts, especially in areas where poverty and equity are challenges. 

The University of Southern California reports that African-American children are most prone to myopia, followed by Asian-Americans, Latinos and Caucasians.

In the end, these parameters and guidelines should also be in place as a reference point for private and parochial schools, as children in these environments should be protected as well.

As the Digital Age progresses, this is a global issue especially for our next generation. Maryland should set a very high standard for the safety of our children.

ADDITIONAL LINKS, ARTICLES, SCIENTIFIC STUDIES & RESOURCES:

News Coverage: 

A recent CBS News story on HB866/SB1089

Background:

Baltimore County Public Schools’ STAT program costs and related issues:

https://statusbcps.wordpress.com/2017/01/22/whats-the-status-of-stat-costs-in-a-dozen-years-that-could-be-a-billion-dollar-question/

Studies, Jacobs: 

Jacobs, K., Hudak, S., McGiffert, J. (at press). Computer-related posture and musculoskeletal discomfort in middle school students. WORK.

*Jacobs, K., Kaldenberg, J., Markowitz, J., Wuest, E., Hellman, M., Umez-Eronini, A., Barr, A. (2013). An ergonomics training program for student notebook computer users: Preliminary outcomes of a six-year cohort study. WORK, 221–230.

Jacobs, K., Foley, G., Punnett, L., Hall, V., Gore, R., Brownson, E., Ansong, E., Markowitz, J., McKinnon, M., Steinberg, S., Wuest, E., Dibaccari, L.,  & Ing, A. (2011). University students’ notebook computer use: lessons learned using e-diaries to report musculoskeletal discomfort. Ergonomics, 54:2, 206-21

——–

Note: “Karen Jacobs, a Boston University clinical professor of occupational therapy, has authored several studies on tech ergonomics, with upcoming findings showing that ergonomic education significantly improves neck posture in middle school students using tablets.

Trained occupational therapists already based at some schools can offer guidance, Jacobs said. “Children don’t want to be in pain,” she added, noting that kids — some of whom experience headaches, eye strain or neck discomfort after using tech devices — need frequent breaks and physical movement, not static postures. “It’s really important that our children are doing lots of different things.”

Debra Milek, a University of Washington associate professor in environmental and occupational health sciences, noted that worn-out tendons, neck pain and carpal tunnel syndrome have plagued computer users and store cashiers, and ended the careers of guitarists. “Discomfort may be an early indicator of future injury,” Milek noted, “which is why it’s important to pay attention to how we use these devices.'”

Article:

Digital Disabilities 

Jacobs’ peer-reviewed articles with others that might also be related. 

http://blogs.bu.edu/kjacobs/publications/articles-refereed/

http://blogs.bu.edu/kjacobs/ (Study breaks and other practical tips)

Other research: Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Jack Dennerlein, Professor of Ergonomics and Safety. In 2012, he led a Harvard University study that found that adjusting tablet viewing angle — to as straight ahead as possible — provides relief.

https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/jack-dennerlein/publications/

Recent posts and Tweets (contact Cindy Eckard):

http://www.screensandkids.us/2016_12_17_archive.html

Quick List of Medical Concerns to watch for:

  1. Increased, irreversible myopia Because long-term fixed distance viewing is very well known to promote nearsightededness, the pre-teen and teenage developmental precondition for myopia is being exacerbated when middle school kids are required to stare at a computer for excessive periods of time. 10 – 15 year-old children are already prone to myopia; it’s the shape their eyes are taking at this stage in their physical development.
  2. Retinal damage and premature macular degeneration The UV blue light emissions that damage the back of our eyes are better able to penetrate children’s eyes because the kids are not blinking, and because a child’s eye doesn’t have the necessary pigmentation to protect against the blue light. So the child is literally staring into a computer with damaging blue light penetrating right to the back of his eye.
  3. Digital eye strain and musculoskeletal discomforts Experts in children’s health are quick to point out that children are not just small adults. When using digital devices, kids are often unaware of the discomfort they are experiencing and do not correct their posture or take a break when their eyes get dry or blurry.  They suffer more than adults, and don’t do anything about it.
  4. Sleeplessness and its damaging side effects Because so much work is done on a computer at school, most homework and studying also has to take place on a computer in the evening. This is especially problematic for our kids because the blue light from the digital devices suppresses a hormone called melatonin, which is necessary for sleep. Our kids are now being deprived of sleep because of the schools’ constant reliance on computers, which brings a host of additional serious health risks to our children. Some kids are actually being misdiagnosed with ADHD, when the truth is, they’re just exhausted.
  5. Increased propensity for psychological issues The constant use of digital devices is emerging as a psychological problem for many young people whose reliance on virtual experiences is replacing actual interaction with friends and family. Some experts, such as Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, are suggesting that digital devices are not only addictive, but lead to additional problems for young children such as depression, anxiety, pornography use and gambling. UCLA research has shown that children are losing their ability recognize emotional expressions in other people’s faces.

Supporting links for the above list:

http://www.screensandkids.us/2016_12_17_archive.html

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MD Screen Safety Advocate’s General Assembly Testimony: Documented Health Risks of Children’s Daily Computer Use

November 2016 presentation to the Maryland General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Cybersecurity, Information Technology and Biotechnology (Chairs: Senator Jim Rosapepe, Delegate Bill Frick)

Documented Health Risks to Children Who Use Computers Daily

by Cindy Eckard (screensandkids@gmail.com)

  1. Increased, irreversible myopia

Because long-term fixed distance viewing is very well known to promote nearsightedness, the pre-teen and teenage developmental precondition for myopia is being exacerbated when middle school kids are required to stare at a computer for excessive periods of time. 10 – 15 year-old children are already prone to myopia; it’s the shape their eyes are taking at this stage in their physical development.

American Academy of Pediatrics: “Myopia is the most common eye problem of the teen years,” says Dr. Harold P. Koller, a pediatric ophthalmologist from Meadowbrook, Pennsylvania, and clinical professor of ophthalmology at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “In kids who are genetically programmed to be nearsighted,” he explains, “the eyeball grows too long from front to back, usually during the growth spurt.” https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/eyes/Pages/Myopia-Nearsightedness.aspx

USC researchers working with the National Institute of Health concluded that daily screen time has caused myopia to double among children in the U.S.. African-American and Asian children showed a higher propensity for myopia than did Caucasian children. The lead researcher is a former Wilmer Eye Institute resident.

University of Southern California: “While research shows there is a genetic component, the rapid proliferation of myopia in the matter of a few decades among Asians suggests that closeup work and use of mobile devices and screens on a daily basis, combined with a lack of proper lighting or sunlight, may be the real culprit behind these dramatic increases.” https://news.usc.edu/91007/usc-eye-institute-study-seeks-cures-to-childhood-myopia

The Vision Council: “While adults with computer-oriented jobs seem to be the prime targets of over-exposure to digital devices, one in four children use these devices more than three hours a day. This exposure, which occurs both at school and at play, poses a risk to children’s developing eyes. accelerated myopia, or nearsightedness, is just one potentially troubling byproduct of too much screen time.”

https://www.thevisioncouncil.org/sites/default/files/VC_DigitalEyeStrain_Report2015.pdf

Students are further disadvantaged in middle school, because right when they need recess the most — the one activity that has been proven to mitigate myopia — they are denied any regular outdoor play:

American Academy of Ophthalmology: “Encouraging children to spend more time outdoors may be a simple and cost-effective way to improve their vision as well as general health, according to several recent studies. They add to the growing evidence that spending time outdoors may lower the risk of nearsightedness in children and adolescents. Nearsightedness is more common today in the United States and many other countries than it was in the 1970s.” http://www.aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/time-outdoors-reduces-nearsightedness

All About Vision: “Moderate and high myopia sometimes are associated with serious, vision-threatening side effects” such as cataracts, retinal detachment and glaucoma. http://www.allaboutvision.com/parents/myopia-progression.htm

  1. Retinal damage and premature macular degeneration

The UV blue light emissions that damage the back of our eyes are better able to penetrate children’s eyes because the kids are not blinking, and because a child’s eye doesn’t have the necessary pigmentation to protect against the blue light. So the child is literally staring into a computer with damaging blue light penetrating right to the back of his eye.

University of Iowa: “As we stare at the computer screen or while reading, our blink rate decreases. We actually blink 66% less while working on the computer. This will cause your eyes to feel dry and to burn.” https://www.uihealthcare.org/2column.aspx?id=225650

WRAL (Raleigh-Durham): Children’s and teen’s eyes are still developing, and the protective pigments in their eyes that is beneficial in filtering some of the harmful blue light has not fully developed yet… Children and young adults who use smart phones and tablets are at risk of potential irreversible eye damage because of blue light emissions from digital devices. Serious problems begin to occur with your eyes when too much exposure to blue light is encountered thru the use of LED Devices. http://www.wral.com/eye-care-center-kids-bluelight/14543845/

Prevent Blindness America: “According to a recent study, children’s eyes absorb more blue light than adults from digital device screens, which is a growing concern as the popularity of cell phones, computers and tablets for school reading and personal use continues to grow each year. Increasing public health data and scientific research describes the eye health effects linked to exposure to digital device light emissions, including Computer Vision Syndrome, eye strain, sleep cycle disruptions and premature retinal damage risk.” http://www.preventblindness.org/childrens-vision-and-electronic-devices

The Washington Post (January 11, 2016) “Computer, iPad and smartphone screens are thought to strain the eyes because they emit blue light or high-energy visible (HEV) light, which reaches far deeper into the eye than other kinds of light and can cause effects that are cumulative.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/01/11/blue-light-from-tech-gadgets-and-digital-eye-strain-more-than-73-percent-of-young-adults-suffer-from-symptoms/

A very good video that explains the physiology of blue light on the eye: http://collettsmart.com/how-much-sleep-do-teenagers-need/

Surgical Specialty Center of Northeastern Pennsylvania: “Continued exposure to blue light can affect the eyes in two ways. First, it may cause eye fatigue. Your eyes may feel dry, irritated and tired after hours of work on the computer or reading emails. This happens to children as well, but it may happen much more rapidly. Children can get headaches from digital eye strain, but it is easy for parents to attribute headaches to other sources. Secondly, blue light is harmful because it is the highest wavelength of visible light. The energy from blue light penetrates all the way to the back of the eye and passes through the eye’s natural filter. Adult eyes have protective pigments that filter some of the harmful wavelengths of blue light, but those pigments are not fully developed in children which leaves them susceptible to eye damage.” http://kingstonsurgerycenter.com/news-article/limit-screen-time-to-protect-your-childs-eyes-04282015

  1. Digital eye strain and musculoskeletal discomforts

Experts in children’s health are quick to point out that children are not just small adults. When using digital devices, kids are often unaware of the discomfort they are experiencing and do not correct their posture or take a break when their eyes get dry or blurry. They suffer more than adults, and don’t do anything about it.

National Institute of Health: “Children can experience many of the same symptoms related to computer use as adults. However, some unique aspects of how children use computers may make them more susceptible than adults to the development of these problems.” For instance, children don’t self-adjust when they experience eye or muscle strain. They just keep working on the computer: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2776336/

OSHA has regulated the use of computers in the workplace since the 1990s (https://www.osha.gov/Publications/osha3092.pdf) when significant environmental health symptoms were first documented: dry eyes, painful and blurry eyes as well as muscle pain in the neck/shoulders were the chief complaints. These symptoms are worse for today’s young children who are required to use a device as much as an office worker does. But kids aren’t self-aware enough to recognize and mitigate their own discomfort. And there are no regulations to protect them.

American Optometric Association: “Computer Vision Syndrome, also referred to as Digital Eye Strain, describes a group of eye and vision-related problems that result from prolonged computer, tablet, e-reader and cell phone use. Many individuals experience eye discomfort and vision problems when viewing digital screens for extended periods. The level of discomfort appears to increase with the amount of digital screen use.” http://www.aoa.org/patients-and-public/caring-for-your-vision/protecting-your-vision/computer-vision-syndrome?sso=y

“Computer Vision Syndrome Threatens Returning Students: (Aug 13, 2007 ) The American Optometric Association (AOA) warned on Aug. 7 that children heading back to school are at risk for developing Computer Vision Syndrome, which leaves them vulnerable to problems like dry eye, eyestrain and fatigue. According to VSP Vision Care, nearly half of U.S. children spend four hours a day or more using computers or other portable electronic devices.” https://ohsonline.com/Articles/2007/08/American-Optometric-Association-Computer-Vision-Syndrome-Threatens-Returning-Students.aspx

Princeton University: “Carpal tunnel syndrome is probably the most widely known repetitive strain injury (RSI), but eyestrain is the most common. If uncorrected, eyestrain can lead to general fatigue, increased myopia (nearsightedness), and a decrease in overall efficiency. Everyone is at risk for eyestrain, especially those who work at a computer for more than three hours a day.” http://uhs.princeton.edu/health-resources/ergonomics-computer-use#eyestrain

The Washington Post (January 11, 2016 ): Blue light from tech gadgets and digital eye strain: More than 73 percent of young adults suffer from symptoms (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/01/11/blue-light-from-tech-gadgets-and-digital-eye-strain-more-than-73-percent-of-young-adults-suffer-from-symptoms/)

The Chicago Tribune (January 6, 2016) Digital eye strain: Symptoms include, in order of prevalence, neck/shoulder/back pain, eye strain, headache, blurred vision and dry eyes. (http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-digital-eye-strain-0106-biz-20160105-story.html).

  1. Sleeplessness and its damaging side effects

Because so much work is done on a computer at school, most homework and studying also has to take place on a computer in the evening. This is especially problematic for our kids because the blue light from the digital devices suppresses a hormone called melatonin, which is necessary for sleep. Our kids are now being deprived of sleep because of the schools’ constant reliance on computers, which brings a host of additional serious health risks to our children. Some kids are actually being misdiagnosed with ADHD, when the truth is, they’re just exhausted.

Frontiers in Health: “The role of light and its influence on many aspects of our physiology, behavior and well-being is increasingly well understood (4–6). In particular, the light/dark cycle is critical in synchronizing the circadian (daily) clock to the 24 h day. The hormone melatonin (“the hormone of darkness”) is produced at night, with the duration of secretion mirroring the dark period, and its production is associated with sleep.” http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpubh.2015.00233/full

NIH: “Youth should be advised to limit or reduce screen time exposure, especially before or during bedtime hours to minimize any harmful effects of screen time on sleep and well-being.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4437561/

Harvard University: “Exposure to blue light at night, emitted by electronics and energy-efficient lightbulbs, [is] harmful to your health. At night, light throws the body’s biological clock—the circadian rhythm—out of whack. Sleep suffers. Worse, research shows that it may contribute to the causation of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.” http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/blue-light-has-a-dark-side

The Sleep Foundation: “Children and adults behave differently as a result of sleepiness. Adults usually become sluggish when tired while children tend to overcompensate and speed up. For this reason, sleep deprivation is sometimes confused with ADHD in children. Children may also be moody, emotionally explosive, and/or aggressive as a result of sleepiness. In a study involving 2,463 children aged 6-15, children with sleep problems were more likely to be inattentive, hyperactive, impulsive, and display oppositional behaviors. ” https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-disorders-problems/adhd-and-sleep

The Washington Post: Blue light from electronics disturbs sleep, especially for teenagers. Harvard sleep expert Dr. Steve Lockey: “Sleep is important for learning, memory, brain development, health … We’re systematically sleep-depriving kids when their brains are still developing, and you couldn’t design a worse system for learning.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/blue-light-from-electronics-disturbs-sleep-especially-for-teenagers/2014/08/29/3edd2726-27a7-11e4-958c-268a320a60ce_story.html

  1. Increased propensity for psychological issues

The constant use of digital devices is emerging as a psychological problem for many young people whose reliance on virtual experiences is replacing actual interaction with friends and family. Some experts, such as Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, are suggesting that digital devices are not only addictive, but lead to additional problems for young children such as depression, anxiety, pornography use and gambling. UCLA research has shown that children are losing their ability recognize emotional expressions in other people’s faces.

TIME Magazine, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras: “Indeed, over two hundred peer-reviewed studies point to screen time correlating to increased ADHD, screen addiction, increased aggression, depression, anxiety and even psychosis.” TIME Magazine, August 13, 2016. http://time.com/4474496/screens-schools-hoax/

UCLA: “UCLA scientists found that sixth-graders who went five days without even glancing at a smartphone, television or other digital screen did substantially better at reading human emotions than sixth-graders from the same school who continued to spend hours each day looking at their electronic devices.” http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/in-our-digital-world-are-young-people-losing-the-ability-to-read-emotions

Advice to BCPS Parents from “Wrench in the Gears” and Why iNACOL Loves ESSA

Recent days have seen an uptick in conversations about online Competency-based Education or CBE, the scary wave of educational transformation rapidly sweeping over the country.  BCPS students, teachers, and parents are at the front edge of this wave with STAT. 

Here is a post by a parent of a public school student who advocates for doing much more than just opting out of end-of-the-year tests.

From Wrench in the Gears (A Skeptical Parent’s Thoughts on Digital Curriculum):  Stop! Don’t opt out. Read this first.

National education expert Diane Ravitch recently linked to the blog.

One of the main “benefits” of our 1:1 initiative, according to Dr. Dance, is that it would allow children to be assessed anytime, anywhere. We’re spending millions on contracts to use and sometimes develop computer-based assessments at the end of every unit.

If you have any doubts about whether the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is ripe for computer-based personalized learning assessments, iNACOL, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, a major trade group, and its partners love ESSA.  Review the slides from this recent webinar hosted by the iNACOL president, iNACOL’s VP for Federal and State Policy, and KnowledgeWorks’ Senior Director of National Policy and you’ll begin to understand why.

During a keynote presentation at iNACOL’s annual meeting, our own Superintendent said:

“The other conversion was this whole idea around the assessment conversion.  There’s a lot of talk around the country about that right now.  Let’s get away from this idea of paper and pencil, you know, multiple-choice assessments.  How do we assess our students without even stopping class, space and time to do that?  Great teachers do this all the time with formative assessments.  But, we also know, in order to personalize learning for young people, we should be able to assess students at any moment, to figure out what level they’re on, what standards they’ve mastered, so they can move along the continuum as [sic] appropriately.”

Watch here. Go to minute 33.

Read, share these links, ask questions, and follow the suggestions from “Wrench in the Gears” that already apply to those of us in BCPS:

~ If your school offers a device for home use, decline to sign the waiver for it and/or pay the fee.

What happens if you don’t sign the waiver for middle and high school?  BCPS needs to make that clear.  We also have elementary students using a 1:1 (that means their own) device at school in first grade!   Many parents are totally unaware how much time students are spending with it, or what they are doing.  Turns out, BCPS leadership doesn’t know how much time students are spending on it either (at approximately 1:00, we hear that there’s “very limited research” on safe screentime in an educational context)!

~ Refuse to allow your child’s behavioral or social-emotional data to be entered into third-party applications. (e.g. Class Dojo)

Ask questions about all the third-party applications being used in BCPS.  Class Dojo tracks behavior.  Check out whether Common Sense Media’s privacy evaluation team has rated the applications. Subscribe to the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy’s blog and check out their back-to-school advice.

~ Refuse in-class social networking programs (e.g. EdModo).

We’re curious about how this is being used in BCPS classrooms and what other social networking software is used.  In general, parents should be very cautious about introducing social media to children – BCPS’ own advice for parents says so.  Parents should have a say about when and how their children are introduced to social networking for school.

~ Set a screentime maximum per day/per week for your child.

Research has shown that when children are spending more than a half-hour per day on the computer, learning outcomes are worse.  The evaluation of STAT thus far has NO data on learning outcomes.  Read the JHU STAT reports here. Ask for homework alternatives that do not require use of a computer.  Ask for textbooks so that reading can be done without more time on the computer.

~ Opt young children out of in-school screentime altogether and request paper and pencil assignments and reading from print books (not e-books).

Parents Across America (PAA), a grassroots, non-partisan organization, has a number of useful linksHere are some questions to ask your school.

~ Begin educating parents about the difference between “personalized learning” modules that rely on mining PII (personally-identifiable information) to function properly and technology that empowers children to create and share their own content.

Dreambox and iReady, so-called “personalized learning” software, are being used in BCPS.  Neither empowers children to create their own content.  See this link on iReady, and this one; this link concerns Dreambox.  Look in BCPSone.  Ask your kids.  Ask your teachers and principals.  What else are they using?  Log in at home with your child if you can and check it out – if you don’t have access to a computer at home, ask your school to show you the programs in action.  You have a right to know what your child is doing at school.

~ Insist that school budgets prioritize human instruction and that hybrid/blended learning not be used as a backdoor way to increase class size or push online classes.

The County Auditor’s report of 2015 notes that class sizes have increased with the implementation STAT.  STAT teachers used to be classroom teachers – they are no longer, instead focusing on professional development.  Hybrid and blended learning have a host of definitions, but here are some examples of how it is playing out so far for kids as young as first grade in BCPS. 

http://lighthouse.bcps.org/reflections/february-26th-2016

http://lighthouse.bcps.org/reflections/flipped-learning-to-differentiate

As Dr. Dance says:

“Most of the nation’s classrooms have about 30 students in them. How can a teacher personalize and customize unless you leverage technology?  In BCPS we have five-year journey to go 1:1 in grades K-12 to where every single kid has a device.” 

But wait.  Respected education policy center NEPC at the University of Colorado says:

“Smaller classes are particularly effective at raising achievement levels of low-income and minority children.”

Observations of the Baltimore County Council Meeting, May 18, 2016

I have repeatedly heard our superintendent state, “How we tell our story matters”.  From this I can conclude that he means that my story matters, too, and that the perspective from which a story is told can change how one thinks about that narrative.  This is my story of attending the Baltimore County Council Budget meeting on May 18, 2016. 

I had seen the auditor’s report the night before and was excited to read the questions the auditor thought needed to be answered.  I carved time out of my day to attend the meeting, scheduled at 3pm, because I wanted to hear the BCPS administration answer these questions.  What I saw instead was disappointing.  The meeting started an hour and fifteen minutes late, so I was able to watch the County Council members adeptly praise and raise concerns in regards to all manner of waste pick up, recycling, snow removal, and pot hole repairs, even to the suggestion of leaving beer as a tip for your trash removers.  So, after the long awaited BCPS representatives’ appearance, I thought we would hear the same level of analysis of the crucial concerns about the budget of Baltimore County Public Schools, which was appropriately identified as the largest chunk of the budget that the Baltimore County Council will be discussing.

There was much discussion about capital budget, new elementary schools, fixing schools, and air conditioning.  However, the budget as it pertains to the STAT initiative was glossed over.  The county auditor appropriately identified many areas of concern regarding STAT; see page 16 of the auditor’s report:

  • Why its budget document does not align to its actual spending patterns in recent years for key instructional costs such as salaries and instructional supplies;
  • The opportunity costs of funding the digital conversion/S.T.A.T. initiative and why BCPS has chosen to prioritize this initiative over other competing funding needs;

Research repeatedly shows that small class sizes are better than computer programs, such as those employed under STAT, but that lost opportunity cost was not identified.  (Read more here,  here, here and here ) Dr. Dance again stated that STAT allows for “student choice,” including where a child sits, and for personalized learning.  He reported that MAP testing scores will be released which show that STAT is improving academic achievement in our schools.  We will look forward to seeing that data released.  Or will it only be released to the County Council?  Since this meeting was not recorded and what they send to the council will likely be a private exchange, where is the transparency in these issues of great concern for students and parents in BCPS?

Dr. Dance went on to say that BCPS has “never overspent” and class sizes “have not increased” during his tenure as superintendent.  That being said, he leaves out that when he began his tenure as superintendent, BCPS was at austerity measures for class sizes- they had been increased because of the economic downturn in 07/08 and have never been returned to what they were previously.

Councilman Kach did raise an interesting question about class sizes and asked if there is a universal way to discuss class size. Dance answered no, and claimed that <2% of classrooms exceed classroom size limits. Is that on average (with small classes such as special education skewing the larger numbers down) or is it an actual?

Councilman Marks appropriately asked about how the budgets of other counties are kept so much smaller with their digital learning environments.  Dr. Dance said he could not speak to those other counties. No one asked about the increasing administrative costs. And no one asked about where the money is coming from for the cost of Dr. Dance and his administration to travel the world discussing the perceived successes of STAT. Who is paying for that? 

Councilman Kach did request that Dr. Dance provide his office with a “fact sheet” which will address health and screen time concerns.  Dr. Dance said he will get that to Mr. Kach by Friday.  We will look forward to seeing that as well.  What Dr. Dance did say was that the American Academy of Pediatrics states that if the screen media is not “entertainment media,” there are no limits to how much time children should spend on computers; he added that our kids are not on the computers “all day every day,” anyway.  Dance described his recent visit to a school in which he was in eight classrooms for ten to twelve minutes each, and in only four of those classrooms were the children using the computers.  I am guessing this was meant to be a description of overall use; however, it just showed how little is actually known about how much time kids are spending on the devices if this is his only concrete example.

This bind is quite confusing to me as a county taxpayer and parent of a young child in BCPS.  By Dr. Dance’s assessment, our kids are not using the computers much at all (although they could, because as he states the AAP says that would be okay if it is educational).  Why then is there the great expense of STAT, which is stripping the county of resources which could be otherwise used to improve the lives of young people in the school system?

The auditor raised this issue on page 23, but it was not addressed by the Council:

  • Results of independent (non-tech industry) studies regarding the benefits and drawbacks of classroom technology that BCPS has consulted during the implementation of the digital conversion/S.T.A.T. initiative;

We did find out from another question on the same page of the auditor’s report that most computers previously used in schools were ten to thirteen years old, and that those computers will be removed and disposed of.  The more recently purchased desktop computers are being recycled to the middle and high schools that do not have the STAT initiative.  This makes me wonder if one of these tablets would last ten to thirteen years and not be obsolete beforehand.  Why are we going from a technology that lasts that long to one in which we will be signing four year leases, presumably because there will be upgrades every four years which we will be paying tremendous amounts of money for annually.

I also did not hear this addressed (page 23):

  • Any impacts associated with redirecting school-based funds on the day-to-day operations of schools and activities (e.g., field trips, assemblies).

The auditor did not include things such as the reduction of money for paper, books, and copiers, but these are day-to-day operations that went completely unaddressed.

This point was also not discussed (page 27):

  • How BCPS responds to parent concerns regarding screen time and radiofrequency exposure and if consideration is being given to an “opt-out” alternative to digital learning environments; 

We wonder if the auditor’s question about the Risk Management position being vacant (Dr. Dance answered that this position has been vacant for 3 months) has to do with them leaving because of the concerns over a program with so little consideration of children’s safety in terms of data privacy, ergonomics, and impact of screen time on developing bodies and brains.  The auditor cited this recent article in the Baltimore Sun. And herehere, here, here and here are more about risks and benefits of computers used in classrooms.

Dr. Dance did mention that one concerned parent would be getting a tour of the STAT program from his staff.  This made me wonder who that person is and why they are getting a tour that is not offered to others.  Why don’t they hold an open forum for concerned parents to have our questions answered—many go unanswered, just like the auditor’s questions.  We wonder if maybe Dance had the tour confused with the “STAT stakeholders” that he and the Baltimore County Education Foundation were tweeting about hosting on the same day as the County Council meeting.  These stakeholders, however, are only the companies that BCPS does business with for STAT. Here is one example, but there are many on Twitter: https://twitter.com/foundationbcps/status/733120972249792512  Where are the parents, students, and genuine stakeholders? You can read more here.

When the topic of computer-based curriculum was addressed, Dr. Dance reflected on the computers being able to “meet and even accelerate”  kids’ learning needs. What  exactly does this mean?  And is this something that only a computer can do?  Small class sizes and talented teachers can do this too, with far more warmth and reliability than machines. Dance specifically stated that it would be “unfair” for a teacher to have a classroom of 25 children without the use of technology to help this teacher address all of the children’s needs at the same time.  It made me wonder, if that is the case, what age group are we talking about?  Can kids not read independently in the grade he is talking about?  Are there enough teacher aides in the class he is describing?  What would happen if the kids had more human help in the classrooms?

Dance mentioned that BCPSOne is what protects children’s data, but he leaves out the corporations included on BCPSOne, and where the data is going, not to mention the issue of kids who can bypass the firewalls of BCPSOne to roam the Internet during class time.

Dr. Dance did answer the question about “opt out” of digital learning environments, and he deferred to the Maryland State Department of Education, stating that a curriculum used by a public school is not one that can be “opted out” of by parents in that system.  We would love more information about this from the state and will follow up on this important concept for all different kinds of reasons, from the philosophical “I don’t want my kid being taught by computers” to the real physical concerns of  “My child has visual problems that the ophthalmologist recommends he not be on computers for more than 30 minutes per day.”

There were other questions answered, such as bus drivers’ and substitute teachers’ pay, which are very important in the functioning of BCPS.  I do not want to diminish the importance of topics I have left out of this description of the meeting. The big announcement of central AC for all schools supposedly being funded by July 1, 2016 removes the focus on the timeline of when that central AC will be actually be bid for and installed, and also distracts from the issue of why the county continues to fund the expensive and unproven STAT computer initiative. 

Moving to Pennsylvania for the Schools

May 15, 2016

To Whom It May Concern:

At the start of 2016, my husband and I made the decision to move our family to southern Pennsylvania for several reasons; one of the main being to leave Baltimore County Public Schools.  This letter serves to inform Baltimore County Board of Education and other county officials of the rationale behind our decision.  This is not a specific criticism of our particular school, which I will not name, but rather concerns we have with BCPS systemically.  With one child in kindergarten and one entering in 2016-17, we have many more years in a school system and do not feel as if Baltimore County is going to give our children the foundation that we feel is important to their educations.

We began kindergarten in the fall of 2015 with cautious optimism despite being warned by a former BCPS employee that we would not be happy with our zoned school.   We were met the first week of school with a list of playground rules.  I understand the need for rules and the need to make sure the children understand the rules.  But when the first rule for kindergarten recess is “No running on the playground”, I begin to have a problem.  Five and six year-old children are expected to focus on academics 6 hours a day with a 20-minute recess, and they are not allowed to run?  I spent time touring and interviewing the elementary schools in Southern York County School District.  Each school representative I spoke with was stunned to learn that my kindergarten student was not permitted to run on the playground during recess.

An excerpt taken from “The Crucial Role in Recess in School”, published by The American Academy of Pediatrics, stresses the importance of unstructured play in the development of children; “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines recess as ‘regularly scheduled periods within the elementary school day for unstructured physical activity and play.’1 The literature examining the global benefits of recess for a child’s cognitive, emotional, physical, and social well-being has recently been reviewed.2 Yet, recent surveys and studies have indicated a trend toward reducing recess to accommodate additional time for academic subjects in addition to its withdrawal for punitive or behavioral reasons.”

Our children will begin the 2016-17 school year in Southern York County School District where they will have recess two times a day, with regular opportunities to earn additional recess as a class.  They will also participate in a district wide “Walking Wednesday” program where all teachers, students and administrators in the district walk the school campuses as an additional opportunity to get outside.  Studies have shown that more opportunities for recess and outside time actually helps children refocus, and there is data to support higher test scores.

Our next concern is the use of technology in BCPS.  This year, my son has not had a tablet and has not participated in the “personalized learning” of which our superintendent is so fond.  My husband and I have some serious concerns regarding the use of technology in the classroom, including decreased interaction between students and teachers, lack of traditional and proven teaching methods and safety of the students-both online and physically.  There is no data to support the use of technology as Superintendent Dance envisions it in BCPS classrooms is an effective teaching tool, and yet BCPS is rolling out the use of personal devices throughout the entire county, without having all security measures in place or even knowing all the possible risks.  There are too many studies to cite here directly but I encourage you to visit

www.waldorfresearchinstitute.org/research-technology/

to see studies on “How Screentime is Affecting Kids’ Moods and Attitudes”, “The Impact of Technology on the Developing Child” and how note-taking is a more effective learning tool than technology.  If you take the time to read any of these articles, you will understand the concerns that parents of young children have regarding one-to-one technology in the classroom.   There has been no reassurance or proof that our children’s identities will be secure with these online learning programs proposed by Mr. Dance.  In fact, a recent article stated that ” ‘75% of schools don’t tell parents that kids’ data is shared’ according to Cheri Kiessecker.” (edworkforce.house.gov).  It should be noted that my husband and I are not alone in these concerns.  There are many parents in Baltimore County who share our concerns and do not want our children learning from a computer instead of a teacher.

The next area of concern we have is the Common Core curriculum and PARCC testing.  Pennsylvania does not participate in Common Core.  The school districts follow a curriculum laid out by the state.  There is the Pennsylvania State Assessment (PSA) as a means of measuring student achievement.  The PSA, however does not cause the high levels of stress and anxiety in students and teachers that PARCC testing seems to.  And taking the PSA is not a requirement for graduation.

Finally, Pennsylvania schools are funded differently than Maryland schools.  We will pay a “school tax” when we move and each year thereafter as long as we reside in the state.  And that’s okay with us.  Because of the school tax, Pennsylvania schools are better funded.  We received our kindergarten supply list recently.  The comparison between our new school and our current school is not only astonishing, but very telling of the use of funds allocated to the schools.  In PA, we have 6 items on the list with one optional item.  In BCPS, there are 35 items and 10 optional items.  The kindergarten supply list is just one example of the funding differences between the two school districts.

My husband and I thought it was important that we share our concerns about BCPS to those who can help facilitate a change.  We are Baltimore County taxpayers who are in the position to purchase a house and we have chosen to take our purchase and our money to another state.  We may only be one family, but most of the houses we looked at during our search were owned by someone who was commuting to MD.  I know of other BCPS families who are considering a similar move for the same reasons cited here.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Noelle S. Wilson

Health Risks Posed to Children by Daily Computer Use

Thanks to Cindy Eckard, a Maryland advocate for computer safety in schools, for sharing this research.  Cindy has published op-eds regarding screentime in the Baltimore Sun and Washington Post.

Additional Research: Some of the health risks posed to children by daily computer use

by Cindy Eckard

screensandkids@gmail.com

There are a variety of issues that are working against the health of children using computers daily. Many of the challenges these devices create for children affect their psychological and social skills: isolation, depression and the growing inability to recognize emotions in the faces of the people around them, for instance. There is a growing body of evidence in these areas that schools need to consider as they increase the use of computers in the classroom. The latent functions of these devices pose larger risks than generally realized; there are more significant prices to be paid than most school administrators are willing to admit or explore.

Here’s a UCLA study: http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/in-our-digital-world-are-young-people-losing-the-ability-to-read-emotions

Basic, common sense protection for our children’s physical health is required. 10-15 year-old children are already prone to myopia; it’s the shape their eyes are taking at this stage in their physical development: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/eyes/Pages/Myopia-Nearsightedness.aspx

And because long-term fixed distance viewing is very well known to promote nearsightedness, the pre-teen and teenage developmental precondition for myopia is being exacerbated when middle school kids are required to stare at a computer for excessive periods of time. The students are further disadvantaged in middle school because right when they need recess the most — the one activity that has been proven to mitigate myopia — they are denied any regular outdoor play.

http://www.aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/time-outdoors-reduces-nearsightedness

This is a complete recipe for disaster, and the scientific community has already begun to tally the damage. The latest USC study specifically identifies screens as the cause for childhood myopia doubling in the U.S. in the last 50 years. The schools must pay attention to this.

https://news.usc.edu/91007/usc-eye-institute-study-seeks-cures-to-childhood-myopia/

The blue light from the monitors is another significant concern. Kids blink 66% less often when they use a computer. That’s why dry eyes are so frequent.

https://www.uihealthcare.org/2column.aspx?id=225650

The UV blue light emissions that damage the back of our eyes are better able to penetrate children’s eyes because the kids are not blinking, and because a child’s eye doesn’t have the necessary pigmentation to protect against the blue light. So the child is staring into a computer whose damaging light penetrates right to the back of his eye. That’s why it’s so dangerous for children’s vision and people are now talking about computer-related macular degeneration instead of age-related macular degeneration. Start a child in kindergarten on these devices, and good luck by the time they graduate.

Experts say the damage is cumulative.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2016/01/11/blue-light-from-tech-gadgets-and-digital-eye-strain-more-than-73-percent-of-young-adults-suffer-from-symptoms/

Blue light emissions have also been shown to reduce melatonin levels which interrupts circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. Because kids are forced to use computers in the evening, to complete assignments that are exclusively online, they are beginning to suffer the effects of sleeplessness: fatigue, irritability and inability to concentrate. As a result, some kids are now being misdiagnosed as having ADHD, when they are simply exhausted.

Here’s a citation: This constant blue light exposure, while inflicting long-term damage to the retina, can also affect our ability to fall asleep. Exposure to these wavelengths after dark will affect our internal clock, causing the pineal gland to suppress the excretion of melatonin, our sleep hormone. This affects our ability to fall asleep. In kids this can lead to loss of focus and concentration, irritability, and hyperactivity, sometimes being mistaken for symptoms of ADHD.

http://www.eyecarebusiness.com/webexclusives/why-should-you-care-about-blue-light.aspx

This link has more information about blue light and sleeplessness and a very good video that explains the physiology: http://collettsmart.com/how-much-sleep-do-teenagers-need/

Environmental and ergonomic considerations also must be addressed: bad lighting, poor contrast settings and glare on the screens all make the children’s eyes work harder, causing more eye strain. Princeton University has a comprehensive outline of considerations to maximize the ergonomically safe use of computers: http://uhs.princeton.edu/health-resources/ergonomics-computer-use#eyestrain

The following article is an excellent overview of computer vision syndrome concerns; it also illustrates how long experts have known about these issues. The AOA has been warning about the vision risks for students at least since 2007. This piece also touches on another unique aspect of children using computers: the inability of children to accurately identify or report physical discomfort, so they continue to work without adjustments, even if their vision gets blurry.

American Optometric Association: Computer Vision Syndrome Threatens Returning Students Aug 13, 2007 THE American Optometric Association (AOA) warned on Aug. 7 that children heading back to school are at risk for developing Computer Vision Syndrome, which leaves them vulnerable to problems like dry eye, eyestrain and fatigue. According to VSP Vision Care, nearly half of U.S. children spend four hours a day or more using computers or other portable electronic devices.

https://ohsonline.com/Articles/2007/08/American-Optometric-Association-Computer-Vision-Syndrome-Threatens-Returning-Students.aspx