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Poster with red, black and brown writing of gender and sex education issues. Large red headline in the center that reads: Comprehensive Sex Ed.

As educators and students navigate the uncharted territory of sheltering in place and remote learning, our youth are stuck at home. As “safe” as the shelter-in-place order is for slowing the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus, it poses a greater threat to youth in two critical ways: the potential for unidentified abuse in households and cyber-bullying by classmates.

In schools, trained staff are uniquely adept at identifying students who may be suffering abuse. But without the benefit of seeing our students in person, there is a risk that some will be suffering in silence or potentially in danger without a trusted adult to intervene.

CPS has struggled with implementing an appropriate, comprehensive sex ed curriculum for years. The current policy reflects a lot of hard work by CTU and women’s rights groups to pass state legislation requiring a comprehensive, medically-accurate and age appropriate curriculum, based on national standards, in every grade from kindergarten through the end of high school. CPS was to have the curriculum fully implemented citywide by the 2016 school year.

Sex ed lagging

But, according to the 2019 Healthy Schools Survey, only 42 percent of schools are teaching all of the required sex ed minutes, and only 62 percent of schools complied with the requirement to send caregivers an annual letter about the curriculum and the opt-out option. This represents a big increase over the previous school year when only 28 percent of schools taught the required minutes and only half of the schools sent the notice home, but it is far short of district-wide implementation.

Healing to Action (HTA), a nonprofit organization working against gender violence in their communities, has been working with CPS caregivers to demand a voice in ensuring that sex ed is taught in every school, that access to sex ed funding is equitable across the district and that caregivers receive support in understanding sex ed and how to teach their children about healthy relationships at home.

To that end, the CTU has partnered with HTA to understand how CPS funds and supports the implementation of sex ed while also hearing concerns from our members and providing space for HTA caregivers to share their experiences with educators.

Teachers lack sex ed training

The majority of CTU members who responded to a union survey in March reported feeling uncomfortable teaching sex ed. Only 33 percent of respondents have received the CPS sex ed training and 38 percent think a sex ed specialist from an outside agency should be teaching this curriculum instead of school staff.

Many respondents recommended that a health endorsement, not just a brief training, should be required to teach the subject. Lack of time, resources and professional development is a big barrier to implementation, even though most of the respondents believe that the curriculum is critically important. Members want CTU to advocate for more time, resources and training as well as advocating for set standards and protocol for how to teach sex ed. Most respondents also want a big increase in caregiver involvement and for caregivers to learn how to talk about this at home with their kids.

CTU hosts listening session

At a recent CTU/HTA listening session, Helen Odell-Ramirez, a retired CTU nurse, shared that school nurses had to fight for the right to teach sex ed back in the 1980s when AIDS was on the rise. Kristy Brooks, a counselor at Walsh Elementary in Pilsen, and Caroline Hallendorff, a middle grade science teacher at Acero-Clemente charter school, recalled the same kind of resistance at their schools. They both needed to push their administration to give them time to teach this important curriculum, but now both schools are on board as its benefits are clear.

All of the members at the listening session expressed concern that CPS’ excessive testing schedule and the pressure to raise SQRP scores are likely major reasons why so many schools are not complying with the mandated sex ed minutes. Many principals prefer to focus time and energy only on things that boost test scores.

Another reason schools fail to comply is because caregivers are both unaware of the mandate and also unaware of the benefits of teaching this curriculum every year. The Union wants to get this issue onto agendas of Professional Personnel Leadership Committees (PPLC) so it can be reported to Local School Councils (LSCs) for further discussion.

I’m always worried about my students

“The sexual health curriculum is very comprehensive,” according to Carly Zwiazek, a health and Physical Education teacher at Curie High School. “Each grade level builds on what the previous grade addressed. By the time they have completed all units, students are prepared with the knowledge to understand various components of healthy relationships and sexual health as well as tools to address unhealthy relationships, cyber manipulation and sexual harassment both online and in person. Students even understand the laws and consequences for committing certain acts. However, even with this knowledge, every individual is going to deal with each situation differently based on their social-emotional status, their backgrounds, beliefs, home situations, and network of supportive individuals. I am always worried about my students, as you never know the home situation.”

Students first learn about internet safety in kindergarten, according to the CPS sex ed curriculum. Obviously we hope that all of our students will come out of the COVID-19 crisis safe and sound, but imagine how much better prepared they would be if every school had already been implementing the sex ed curriculum before the stay-at-home order was imposed.

CPS should ensure that sex ed is incorporated into each grade’s curriculum — and educators can help push for this. Now is the time to develop a plan for your school to respond to cyberbullying or inappropriate online behavior. It is also critically important to be on alert for potential sexual abuse issues in the home or online–as difficult as that may be during distance learning. Talk to your delegate, Professional Problems Committee (PPC) and co-workers to ensure that everyone is on the same page and knows the steps they can take to protect our students.

Sarah Rothschild is an Education Policy Analyst at the Chicago Teachers Union.