EAST WENATCHEE — Garn Christensen believes student-filled cafeterias should be noisy places.

Now, they’re eerily quiet, full of kids looking at their cell phones who aren’t aware of what’s going on around them.

“It’s important to be able to read a room,” he said, which requires a set of nonverbal and soft-communications skills. “The demand for those skills is very high. I have a fear as I’ve watched adolescents over the years, and adults, too. We may be losing something that we’re not even aware of.”

His recommendation Monday that the Eastmont School Board consider a district-wide policy to reduce screen-based learning and limit use of personal digital devices during the school day, while prioritizing personal interaction skills, was met with whole-hearted approval.

“I endorse examining this aspect of education,” board president Steve Piccirillo said. “I think it dovetails nicely with some of the board’s initiatives over the last couple of years, ensuring our students get a rudimentary introduction into home finances, how to balance a checkbook and reinvigorate our civility teaching. This isn’t about denying technology exists and not using it to its fullest potential in the education environment, but rather, ensuring our students have a full complement of skills and experiences, some of which aren’t technologically related.”

The other four board members concurred.

They’re not alone.

Christensen said he doesn’t recall receiving as many positive comments about a proposal before.

“I don’t think I’ve been contacted this frequently, so fast, in a positive way by community members and parents saying, ‘Thank you, we appreciate the Eastmont board looking at this and coming up with some guidelines,’” he said. “I’ve had parents say, ‘It would help me as a parent if you could reinforce some guidelines I think are important also.”

Christensen said the response took him by surprise.

“I had no idea what to expect,” he said. “Some people are really possessive of their phones. It will be interesting to see what happens as we get into it.”

A Wenatchee World story on his proposal went online Friday and was published in the weekend paper.

“I’ve had people stopping me in the grocery store, at the YMCA and at the credit union walking up to me and saying thank you,” he said. “And online, it’s gotten a lot of comments and has been shared quite a bit.”

As of Tuesday, the Facebook post had received 97 comments, was shared 66 times and had reached 26,220 people.

With the board’s direction to move forward, the policy review will start with gathering research and input from parents, administrators, teachers, community members, business leaders and health professionals.

“There’s a lot out there saying they are worried about increased stress, anxiety, depression among young people whose whole social world is conducted through their phones,” he said.

The issue is about more than student cell phones, but also about digital learning.

“We have a group of new teachers coming in and that’s all they know. They go to the screen-based learning first. If you go to the 20-year veteran, they go to it after, and they still do a bit more human interaction and human-based teaching rather than the screen-based teaching. I would like us to have some guidelines for teachers about using all-day, screen-based learning. We’re going to look and see what are the best practices.”

Christensen said he expects to do some of the research with help from Washington State University professors.

“It will be an extensive conversation,” he said. “Hopefully we will get something on paper after Christmas, a draft policy to start with that will be presented to the board.”

The goal is to have a police in place for the 2020/21 school year, he said.

Nevonne McDaniels: 664-7151

mcdaniels@wenatcheeworld.com