Sunday, April 8, 2018

Waiting for Governor Larry Hogan to Sign
the Classroom Screen Safety bill
Hoping he will sign HB1110 this week

Children's health advocates have much to celebrate in the wake of the Maryland General Assembly's vote on HB1110: "Public Schools – Health and Safety Best Practices – Digital Devices." The bill passed unanimously in both the House of Delegates and the Senate.

Many thanks to all of our elected officials for protecting our children. And special thanks to Delegate Steve Arentz for his sponsorship and leadership of this bi-partisan effort.

The governor's signature this week will help parents, teachers, principals, advocacy groups and policy makers begin the important conversations with local school boards regarding their own student protections before the school year ends. The deadline for action by the Governor is May 28.

This bill recognizes the public health threat facing our children at school and speaks directly to preventing harm to students.  It acknowledges that the physical and psychological threats related to daily use of digital devices are posed regardless of the subject matter.

It mandates that the department of education develops "health and safety best practices," in other words, preventative measures to protect our children from documented associated health risks such as myopia, dry eye disease, retinal damage, sleeplessness, obesity and anxiety.

The safety and health best practices will be developed by the Maryland State Board of Education (MSDE) in consultation with the Maryland Department of Health (MDH) by June 1, 2019, and presented to local districts by July 1, 2019.

This is a key point: the agencies who are responsible will alone be accountable for the creation of best practices. The state's medical experts will help the department of education develop a uniform set of recommendations to share with local districts, many of which lack the resources to do this themselves, to protect their own students.

The best practices that will be developed are not required to be adopted by the local districts. This recognizes a long-standing tenet that the state does not dictate policy to the local school boards. Nonetheless, it is expected that many local districts will opt to employ the state's best practices.

Local districts might also choose to incorporate some of, or modify, the best practices offered by MSDE. As such, the state's documentation will serve as an important medical resource for districts, offering the best research available. Adopted in part or in whole, they will establish a critical guide to protect our children, one which schools, teachers, parents and parent groups can share and distribute.

While the original text called for a significant group of stakeholders to be convened, the amendments from the Education Subcommittee - which removed the stakeholders' participation altogether - do not in any way diminish the import of this legislation. Nothing in the original text required MSDE or MDH to heed the stakeholders' input or include it in their best practices; it merely required MSDE to convene a work group, a requirement that could have been satisfied by a single meeting.

The bill's import is that it officially acknowledges the health threat posed to students by the digital device use required by the schools, and - absent the stakeholders' group - now appropriately places the responsibility for remedies precisely and exclusively where it belongs: with the state agencies whose job it is to provide a safe, healthy learning environment for our kids.

The Education Subcommittee's change from "guidelines" to "best practices" is actually an improvement on the language. "Best practices" is more concise and offers citizens a more clearly defined set of expectations and specific performance measures.

Given the unanimous support for this bill in both the House and the Senate, it's difficult to imagine that the creation of this documentation will take place in a vacuum; our elected officials are well aware of the extreme interest parents and advocates have in this ongoing process.

As the spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics' Maryland Chapter mentioned in the Senate hearing - which was echoed by the Maryland Occupational Therapy Association representative - those who have research and experience to offer MSDE and MDH will of course pursue a dialogue in the coming months to provide critical input.

Wild horses couldn't keep some of us away. Many medical experts and child development professionals have been researching these issues for years. We certainly don't need a work group to be heard.

Cindy Eckard
@screensandkids
www.screensandkids.us