Business as usual: MD State Department of Education defends its digital curriculum, instead of our children's health
Maryland's landmark classroom screen safety law went into effect July 1, 2018. Passed unanimously in the House and Senate, and swiftly signed by Governor Larry Hogan, the bill establishes a state mandate to the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE): consult with the Maryland Department of Health and develop Health and Safety Best Practices for Digital Devices to protect both public and private school children from the well-documented health risks posed by daily classroom digital device use.
However, MSDE has instead continued its established pattern of ignoring the serious health impacts of digital device use and assigned its classroom technology proponents, not MSDE student health experts, to draft these critical digital device best practices.
The following letter was written to the Maryland Board of Education President, Dr. Justin Hartings, and the other Board members, asking that they intercede to correct the situation, and make sure that MSDE student health experts are included in drafting protections for our children.
The letter includes the response from MSDE's staff when asked why student health experts are not involved in this landmark effort to protect students from epidemic myopia, obesity, addiction, sleeplessness, anxiety and depression - all of which are associated with the schools' demand for ever more digital device use.
Suffice it to say, it's business as usual in Maryland right now. Advocates for children's health and safety should contact their elected officials, the Maryland State Board of Education and Governor Hogan's office. A review of this process is desperately needed.
A practical guide to classroom screen safety best practices follows below; it has been provided to Maryland Department of Health, to MSDE and to the State Board of Education. Let's hope that this landmark effort does not get whitewashed and a meaningless set of best practices is offered instead.
As it stands now, MSDE is promising a computer safety video, produced by Maryland Public Television (MPT) - the same people who promote ever more screen use at school and at home. Interestingly, MPT is responsible for professional development training for Maryland teachers
; MPT and PBS are among the biggest proponents for the schools' digital agenda.
Hardly the health advocacy that the Maryland General Assembly had in mind when the lawmakers unanimously passed this critical effort to protect our children.
Ongoing research is shared routinely on the Twitter account, @screensandkids. Please follow that account for the latest developments on Maryland's screen safety law as well.
October 30, 2018
Dear Dr. Hartings and Members of the Board,
am writing to request that a recent
Maryland State Department of Education
(MSDE) staff assignment is reviewed and corrected, to ensure that MSDE
is appropriately fulfilling its legal obligations to implement HB1110:
"Health and Safety Best Practices for Digital Devices," and to address
the current appearance of impropriety as well.
The irrefutable public health threats associated with digital device use by children convinced the General Assembly to pass HB1110
the last legislative session. The law requires MSDE to consult with the
Maryland Department of Health (MDH) and draft health and safety best
practices by June 1, 2019, to be presented to the local school districts
by July 1, 2019.
The lawmakers recognized that as a consequence of using the schools'
digital devices every day (and night, for studying), Maryland students
are at risk for serious health problems
. For example, the negative impacts of daily digital device use increase students' risk for myopia, obesity,
sleeplessness, anxiety and addiction.
The bill was supported by the Maryland State Medical Association
(MedChi), the Maryland Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics,
Prevent Blindness, the Mental Health Association of Maryland and the
Maryland Occupational Therapy Association, in addition to several
pediatric specialists and child health advocacy groups nationwide.
"Educational" applications equally hazardous
The fundamental understanding expressed by the medical community in its
support of the legislation centers on the use of the equipment itself,
not on the content - in short, "educational" applications pose the same
degree of physical health risks to children as any other use of digital
equipment. Practitioners describe this situation as a public health issue facing our children, at the hands of the schools.
With unanimous support in both the House of Delegates and the Senate,
and a swift signature from Governor Hogan, this new law establishes a
clear state mandate: MSDE must protect Maryland students from the known
health hazards associated with the schools' digital devices by drafting
health and safety best practices.
However, MSDE has recently
assigned its leading digital learning proponents - rather than student
health experts - to draft the health and safety best practices for
digital devices. This choice casts serious doubt on the Department's
commitment to protecting the health of students or faithfully
implementing the law. Rather, the Department now appears more interested
in protecting its own digital curriculum than it is, the health and
safety of Maryland students.
month, I met with MSDE administrators who were originally identified as
project staff members for the creation of best practices. I was assured
that the health concerns which instigated the law would be adequately
addressed by school health experts. Now I'm told that the administrators
and staff with whom I met have been replaced by leaders of the digital
conversation last Wednesday (October 24th) with the Department
spokesperson, no explanation was offered for the transfer of
responsibility from the MSDE division that routinely handles school
health matters, to the digital curriculum division.
I questioned the change in oversight for these critical student health
concerns, the spokesperson responded, "MSDE teaches; that's what we do."
He continued, "The Department of Health is responsible for the health
of children." He saw "no issue" with the state's leading technology
curriculum proponents drafting MSDE's student health and safety best
practices for digital devices.
This situation is intolerable and indefensible.
Governor and the General Assembly have given MSDE a mandate to correct
serious public health threats posed to our growing children through the
schools' demand for digital device use every day. In response, the
Department has shown a complete disregard for student health, and
assigned unqualified staff - who also happen to be the most influential
MSDE digital device advocates - to carry out this critical effort.
spokesperson confirmed this dynamic on the phone with me, verbalizing
that classroom health issues are not among MSDE's priorities; indeed, he
suggested that MDH alone was responsible for addressing student health
risks, while the focus of his Department was singularly curricular. "I
don't see an issue here at all," he said.
The notion that MDH has become
responsible for implementing this law has been voiced by other MSDE
staff as well, which implies an abdication of responsibility.
MSDE's digital platform may be the Department's sole priority, Dr.
Hartings, it is hardly its sole responsibility, especially within the
specific implementation of this law.
Long-standing Responsibility for Student Health
schools' obligation to student health issues is long-standing and
mental health, nutrition, dental health, vision and hearing screenings
and safe playgrounds, to sexually transmitted diseases and limiting
screen time for child care centers, to name just a few. And while the
MSDE spokesperson claimed only one staff member was medically proficient
and "couldn't be everywhere at once," the fact is, significant numbers
of school health staff are employed by MSDE.
failing to include its own medical professionals in this critical
effort to mitigate serious classroom health threats to Maryland
students, the Department has failed to embrace the gravity of the
physical and emotional risks its digital equipment is imposing, while it
ignores its responsibilities as defined by statute.
is more than disheartening to hear the Department spokesperson disavow
responsibility for student health; it speaks to negligence. The
Department has both a social contract and a legal obligation to provide a
safe and healthy learning environment for all Maryland students. The
sole responsibility for implementation of HB1110 is legally that of
MSDE, not MDH, which is required to serve in a consulting capacity only.
Department has known about digital device health risks
The Department has been well aware of the risks to students for years,
and has taken no initiative to protect our children.
The negative health impacts were brought to the attention of the
Department in 2015; the legislation was originally introduced to the
General Assembly in 2016. The Department was made aware that OSHA has
regulated the daily use of computers for decades to protect adult users
from avoidable harm. State testimony that MSDE knew about also revealed
that the equipment manufacturers themselves provide extensive safety
warnings which explicitly inform consumers that "serious bodily harm"
can ensue if safety warnings go unheeded.
very MSDE staff now assigned to lead the health and safety best
practices effort are the same who neglected to perform any due diligence
for safety risks associated with classroom devices in the first place,
and ignored the well-documented health warnings that have been published
and broadcast in medical journals, radio, television, newspapers, and
online media and shared in state testimony. They instead continued to
encourage increased use of hazardous equipment, without any regard to
our children's health, which is what prompted the introduction of the
it is law. The Department should finally roll up its sleeves, get all
of its health experts together, and work with MDH to get our kids the
protections they need and are legally owed - at last.
The serious nature of the ailments related to the schools'
equipment dictate that qualified MSDE student health staff are part of
the solution. Our children's health needs defending, not MSDE's
curriculum. It is essential that the health and safety best practices
for digital devices provide meaningful protections to ensure our
children are not physically or emotionally damaged by their schools'
Mandate from Maryland General Assembly
carry out the will of the people as unanimously voiced by every member
of the General Assembly and the Governor. The prolonged appearance of
impropriety will only add to the public's significant distrust for MSDE,
a distrust which is guaranteed to expand if this situation isn't
corrected. And while the legislation does not require it, the creation
of any sound public policy, of course, requires input from stakeholders.
Interim updates on the progress of this landmark student health
initiative would also serve the public interest.
am attaching substantial documentation to help you better understand
the serious health risks now threatening Maryland students. I've shared
this research with leadership in both MDH and MSDE and included specific
suggestions for mitigations as well. Ongoing research is also posted
on my Twitter account. It has well over 500 followers, that include JAMA
Pediatrics, the Pediatric Academic Society, the USC Roski Eye
Institute, AAP leadership as well as national education leaders and
national parent groups - many of whom are watching this Maryland
policy-making, with a hope of replicating it in their states.
hope I can look forward to a response from the Board, as little
meaningful communication from MSDE appears to be forthcoming, despite
several attempts to discuss this with members of its administration.
A GUIDE TO CLASSROOM SCREEN SAFETY
provided to the Maryland Department of Health, the Maryland State Department of Education, and the Maryland Board of Education, Fall, 2018
regarding educational versus recreational device use must be addressed
and dispelled to ensure that teachers, administrators and parents
recognize the fundamental medical hazards posed by the devices
themselves, independent of the content. "Educational" applications are
just as damaging to a child's vision, for instance, as any other
Growing children are not just small adults; they are
developing in specific stages and at different rates, without a full set
of adult physical or psychological capabilities. As such, children are
more vulnerable to the hazards posed by devices. Students will suffer
more serious damage due to those vulnerabilities, because the related
health risks are cumulative and the schools are demanding use of devices
at ever earlier ages.
Students using devices in an unsafe way
will likely suffer a greater variety of long-term co-morbidities as well.
For instance, online homework is associated with melatonin suppression,
leading to sleeplessness, which contributes to obesity, diabetes and
heart disease. Severe myopia is associated with a higher risk of
glaucoma, retinal detachment and cataracts later in life.
the schools are requiring daily device use from students, starting at a
very young age, and continuing throughout these developmentally
critical stages, extreme caution should be applied when demanding the
use of school equipment - equipment that has been regulated for adults
by OSHA since the 1990s.
New technologies poised for classroom
use - including virtual reality tools and applications - will bring
even higher levels of risk to Maryland students. It is within this
context of increased digital exposures that policy makers must make
responsible, well-informed, regulatory and purchase decisions to protect
students from known - and future - classroom hazards.
of safe hardware configurations appropriately rests with state vendors
who are aware that laptops are not designed to be used as full-time
workstations. Therefore, according to the manufacturers
the devices must be retrofit with peripherals to establish a safe work
environment for students. Those peripherals are necessary to ensure the
ergonomic safety of all students, regardless of age or height.
may include a mechanism for raising the monitor to the appropriate eye
level, an external keyboard, and an external mouse. Peripherals that
ensure student safety should be part of any future purchases, but do not
represent a significant cost to the state. Simple, low-cost, adjustable kickstands, for instance
are readily available.
can certainly require appropriate configurations when writing its RFPs.
Demanding safety from all vendors will go a long way in making the bids
Finally, a theme runs through most of the
documented medical hazards posed to students by these devices, and is
echoed in the suggestions for mitigating many of those risks: keep the
school's digital devices at school, and stop requiring students to take
them home and use them at night.
The cost savings that
the state will realize in reduced maintenance, repair, and replacement
costs will be astronomical (the cost for a carrying case alone is
between $35-$50 per student). Keeping the devices at school will also
increase classroom productivity because the devices will be intact,
operable, charged and ready for use in class when needed.
of the documented health risks to Maryland students posed by daily use
of the schools' digital devices are listed below, with suggestions to
mitigate those risks. I have omitted references to radiation and wi-fi
routers, since ample documentation is already compiled by MDH. I have
also omitted any reference to cell phone use as those devices are not
Extensive additional medical references, studies and reports are available on my website www.screensandkids.us
The links contained herein are provided for your quick access to some
of the more definitive or recent scientific evidence, underscoring the
need for the best practices you are tasked to develop.
RISKS TO STUDENTS' EYE HEALTH AND VISION
- epidemic, nationally and world-wide; use of screens recognized internationally as major cause
- exacerbated by fixed, near work and lack of exposure to the sun
- genetic predisposition among Asian, African-American and Hispanic populations
- developmental predisposition among 11-15 year olds
- often undetected due to lack of proper eye exams
- blurs vision; interfering with academic, athletic abilities
- progressive; can lead to blinding conditions such as glaucoma, retinal detachment and cataracts
- Schedule device use within grade levels to ensure routine breaks
from screens on a daily basis. For instance, when device use is
required in the first period, it must take place in the first 20 minutes
of class. The next 20 minutes would be used without screens. Then in
2nd period, device use would also take place during the first 20
minutes, followed by a break. Third period, the same first 20 minutes.
Each grade level team could determine what part of the class they
would prefer, as long as the use and breaks were consistent throughout
the school day.
- Increase recess and outdoor classes. Sunshine has proven to be a key factor in the mitigation of myopia
It stimulates dopamine in the brain, which helps to curb the elongation
of the eye that is taking place when the child grows. That elongation
helps to create the refractive error.
Begin public health information campaign to alert families to risks at
school and at home from excessive screen time; strongly encourage more
breaks and more outdoor play.
- Develop classroom posters that remind teachers and students to take breaks; duplicate posters as flyers to be used at home.
Develop classroom contracts similar to those needed for science class
that outlines for the teacher, student and parent what the risks and
mitigating practices are regarding the safe use of the school's digital
devices (emulate the approach used for lab equipment).
The light travels to the back of the eye - the macula - and the process
permanently destroys the cells needed to see. This process has been
recognized as part of aging. It has been called age-related macular
degeneration or AMD. Today, signs of macular degeneration
are being seen in much younger patients as a result of screen use.
- Blue light suppresses the production of melatonin
, the hormone that regulates sleep. Sleeplessness
is directly associated with anxiety, depression, poor academic
performance, and obesity. Obesity is epidemic among children today and
leads to heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes. That's why the
American Heart Association published a statement this summer calling for screen time limits
- Blue light filters should be installed on every school-issued digital device and made a basic requirement for all future RFPs.
No homework should be assigned on devices. Schools cannot control the
time which students use the schools' equipment, and therefore, could be
contributing to the interruption of critically important healthy sleep
patterns, since many students are doing homework late in the evening.
To protect students from the serious risks posed by blue light
exposure, the use of screens in the classroom should be limited to
actual school work; "free play" or "quiet time" should not be spent
- Children (and adults) blink 67% less often when using digital devices, which has caused a significant rise in dry eye disease
symptoms in younger patients. Severe dry eye can permanently damage the cornea.
Dry eye disease and computer vision syndrome are closely related since
the symptoms can overlap: red, scratchy eyes, blurred vision, headaches
- The student's discomfort can interfere
with academic performance since the child finds it difficult to
concentrate. Moreover, if children are accustomed to experiencing this
discomfort, many will find it "normal," and not report it to an adult.
Undetected, unreported chronic eye discomfort can be a sign of more
serious conditions and permanently damage children's eyes and vision.
- Adhere to manufacturers' safety guidelines
for safe workstation settings to include monitor height, monitor angle,
and proper settings for glare and contrast (and audio settings - which
are often ignored, and necessary to protect students' hearing).
- Review classroom seating and overhead lighting to minimize glare and reflection from windows or other light sources.
- Ensure proper ergonomic posture among students; require proper posture to avoid muscular discomfort.
Train teachers and school nurses to recognize the signs of discomfort
when children are using devices, and develop policies to offer paper
alternatives whenever possible.
- Teach children to recognize and report their own symptoms of dry eye or digital eye strain.
Make these issues part of the overall public education component
(classroom posters and letters to the home) for digital device screen
- In all cases, encourage parents to provide a full
eye exam for their children and establish a policy of uniform, scheduled
breaks from the screens throughout each school day.
There are many additional health and safety concerns that must be addressed in your deliberations, chief among them:
- fundamental cultural biases within the school climate that encourage ever-increasing screen use
little awareness of screen addiction; it is exacerbated by the constant
demand that students use devices regardless of healthier alternatives
that would serve the same purpose, and also made worse with the increase
of educational "gamification"
- little understanding of the associations between screen use and mental
health issues: anxiety and depression are sharply rising and
suicides have tripled among teenage girls in recent years
clear understanding of the educational benefits and health risks posed
by these devices must emerge so that they are used to their best
advantage, without harming students in the process, visually,
physically, or psychologically.