Bridging the Pandemic Sex Ed Gap
Seventh grade is one of those grades that just hits everyone like a ton of bricks for better or for worse, and in doing so it gives adolescents a little hard shove in the direction of having to grow up just a little.
Even though the Hulu series PEN15 takes place about a decade after I was in middle school, the powerful cringe of seventh grade before the dawn of Google is so similar to my us Oregon Trailers’ experience it’s almost uncanny.
Although it was north of 30 years ago for me, I can still remember vividly the gaggle of girls sitting behind me in middle school choir singing George Michael’s “Faith” and giggling over the line “touch your body.” I can vividly recall that moment in home ec where we hollowed-out eggs that would serve as our pretend babies, which we carried around with us from class to class in a surreal representation of real-world parenting.
There was the roller coaster of seventh-grade crushes and boyfriends, not to be unmatched by the roller coaster of seventh-grade friendships. The kids getting all hyped up over who was supposedly going to fight whom after school. The thrill of picking your own electives, the disappointment when you realize the electives you picked suck. The throbbing algebra headaches. Spending my lunch money on a slushie and a bag of chips and no one trying to tell me that was a bad idea.
And among the punctuating moments at Foster Middle School, I remember a questionable but altogether adequate sexual health unit during the height of the AIDS scare. Sex ed in 1986 Oklahoma was…well, it was something. Now that I’m all grown up (allegedly) with two seventh-grade sons, I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever have grandeggs of my own to accidentally sit on.
The Year of the Virtual Classroom
As tough as middle school can be, last year when they applied for schools, I was so excited for my sons, both seventh-graders this year, to experience all of the drama and pressure and cringe and heartaches of such a formative grade.
After weighing out their school options carefully, they chose where they wanted to go and applied, and both boys got into schools they were looking forward to. New schools, fresh start. From a personal branding perspective, the ultimate reboot opportunity.
But before we could shine up those Jordans, the pandemic hit. TLDR, instead of hanging out at the manga geek and robotics club tables at their respective schools, they’re holed up in their rooms day after day slogging through the world’s driest virtual geography class, sans electives.
I can’t even begin to think about the social and educational implications of the pandemic zapping their seventh-grade year, so I keep reminding myself that the social implications of having long-haul syndrome are worse, which is a little like telling yourself being stuck inside during the zombie apocalypse is better than having to run from walkers.
Every once in a while, one of the kids gets so far behind in their studies I have to sit next to them and push them through a few sections, which consists of mainly reading the content out loud to them and asking feedback-focused questions because their little minds are burned out from Screenfry™️, a condition anyone who works remotely can relate to.
And it was in one of these recent digital power sessions that I realized that along with all of the many essential seventh-grade Zoomer experiences my kids had missed—the shared Takis, the boring assemblies, the awesome debate club wins—something fundamental had been missed: Sex ed.
Arthur is in Tulsa Virtual Academy, so all of his classes are pretty self-paced. Although his three-months-older brother Noah is enrolled and served through Nathan Hale, outside of his scheduled Zooms, his courses are fairly close to Arthur’s and several use the same content.
Arthur and I were making our way through his Health class when we came across some concerning sexual health content in a section called “Reproductive Health” as part of their pre-packaged digital health unit.
To the credit of Tulsa Public Schools, they immediately removed this content once it was brought to their attention, although not until after my sons and a few of their fellow seventh-graders had already completed it. But the incident brought something to my attention that I had previously overlooked: I had no idea how or even if my sons would be taught sexual health and family planning in school like seventh-graders normally are.
Adapting Sex Ed for the Digital Year
Like most school districts, TPS has been doing their best to put together the most workable education possible for our kids under the circumstances. But sex ed is one of those areas that has proven a bit of a challenge this year.
With the fifth-highest teen birth rate in the country in Oklahoma, making sure our kids get access to evidence-based sex ed is crucial. I worried about how that birth rate might be affected by a year of virtual learning. Would kids still be getting sex ed? Would that education be adequate?
Although we have done a fair job of laying a foundation for sexual health education at home, there is no substitute for a comprehensive program led by a sexual health educator in the classroom. To make sure kids weren’t missing out on this important information, I contacted the school district to find out more.
After a bit of calling around, I connected with Joya Cleveland, Program Manager of Strong Tomorrows, a program that offers support for high school students who are expectant parents and parents and supports family planning implementation.
Normally, I learned, sex ed is taught during seventh-grade science and high school biology, usually in the spring. For my older son, this material will be rolled out in April.
Joya told me that TPS implements a curriculum called Positive Prevention Plus (P3). P3 implementation is supported by Amplify, a local nonprofit formerly known as the Tulsa Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
According to Amplify’s website, P3 is “a comprehensive evidence-based sexual health and teen pregnancy prevention curriculum for middle and high school, grades 7-12 and out-of-school youth, written in compliance with the National Health Education Standards. Topics include: STI’s, Abusive Relationships, Healthy Relationships, HIV, Contraception, and much more.”
Amplify’s team noted that TPS is one of the only school districts in the state implementing evidence-based, age-appropriate, medically accurate sex education that is inclusive and stigma-free based on the National Health Standards.
TPS was also one of the first districts to respond to the pandemic. They immediately began working with implementation partners to determine how the P3 model could be adapted for distance-learning implementation.
Because P3 is based on in-person learning including student engagement through classroom discussion, the challenge has been finding a way to present this material online in a way that gives students the same quality of education and information as they would receive with face-to-face instruction.
As distance learning includes independent learning in a blended format and much of the students’ work is self-paced, the program’s directors have been working on presenting that content in a way that students will be comfortable with and still get the closest possible experience to engaged, in-class learning. The distance learning format has been approved for use this year with the hope that students will be returned to a traditional learning model next year.
But although this temporary online curriculum was approved for distance learning, there isn’t anything set up for Tulsa Virtual Academy at this time, which means for one of my sons, there’s still a big question mark as to whether he will have access to that curriculum through school.
Because Tulsa Virtual Academy is a completely independent study platform, adapting the material would mean having to find a way to restructure students’ learning so they get the face-to-face instruction needed, and for right now, there is nothing in place. That’s because it’s imperative to make sure any sex ed curriculum is inclusive, evidence-based, and accurate, and identifying a way to present this material in a self-paced learning format is a challenge.
TVA will continue as a 100% virtual school in 2021-2022, so smoothing out how sex ed will be implemented for TVA students is something TPS will need to iron out.
TPS actually began addressing these issues last year when schools went on lockdown right around Spring Break, about the time many seventh-graders would have been beginning their sexual health unit. Those seventh-graders won’t fall through the cracks, Joya told me. Instead, TPS will be rolling out the P3 program from seventh through tenth grade, which means if they don’t receive the content one year, they should receive it in the future.
If you’re concerned about whether your kids are getting access to sex ed this year, here are a few things you can do:
- Find out when your student is scheduled to participate in the P3 program.
- Remember that sex ed in TPS is an opt-out program, which means you will be notified before your student receives this curriculum so that you can choose to opt out if you have an objection.
- If your student is in TVA, be aware that they may not receive sex ed this year but should once they return to in-person learning.
- Don’t be afraid to continue asking about when your student will receive sex ed.
- Check out these great resources for youth and trusted adults.
About Amplify and P3
In sharp contrast with the sketchy Reagan-era Falwellian Scare Tactics brand sex ed curriculum my fellow gen-Xers and I were taught, Positive Prevention Plus is focused on building a better future.
Check out these fast facts on Amplify:
- Mission: Promoting healthy futures for youth through advocacy, collaboration, and education
- Vision: Informed Youth. Healthy Communities. Vibrant Futures.
Supporting Your Student
If your student is participating in the P3 curriculum this year, here are a few things you can do to support their learning:
- Check out the Parent Preview Night, where you’ll be given the opportunity to preview your student’s learning, ask questions, and bring up any concerns.
- Make sure they are present for every lesson.
- Give them access to headphones and a quiet place to learn that’s free of distractions and, importantly, other family members. Would you want to learn sex ed with your mom hanging around?
If your kids aren’t yet in middle school, you may be wondering when is a good time to start giving them access to sexual health information.
As Joya told me, “The time to talk is when your student has questions.” Letting your kids know that their questions are natural and giving them space to discuss them in a healthy way can help open the door for dialogue down the road and healthy decision-making later in life.
Although not all parents are comfortable engaging in direct conversations about sexual health, there are loads of wonderful age-appropriate books and resources available online. Check out this awesome TulsaKids primer to learn more about introducing these important topics to younger kids.
Now that I know my kids are going to get the sexual health information they need, I can focus on more pressing matters like finding new ways to motivate my kids through online algebra while I’m working remotely full-time and explaining to my husband why I drained the yolks out of all of our eggs with a straight pin.
For the kids, honey. I did it for the kids.
Do you have any questions for TPS or Amplify educators? Hit me up in the comments and I’ll see what I can find out. As always, thanks so much for reading and have a beautiful little week in your nebula!