Teaching sex education during the pandemic has put some educators in a quandary over how to deliver the course, given the remote learning model that some say make it difficult to protect students’ privacy.
Despite sex education being a mandatory part of the Ontario curriculum, one Sudbury teacher says she’s skipping it this year because at-home learning has meant she can’t guarantee her students are in a private and safe space for learning.
CBC has agreed not to name the teacher as she’s worried speaking out could cause her problems at work.
She said the spring semester is typically when she introduces the sexual health unit, also known as the Fully Alive Unit or Human Development Unit, to students in Grades 5 and 6. It allows them to get to know her, and hopefully arrive at a place where they feel comfortable and safe to engage with the sometimes awkward subject.
It also gives them a chance to ask questions, including on topics like gender identity, managing emotions and even masturbation.
There’s anxiety teaching sex ed in front of the parents.— Sudbury teacher
But this year, she said, her students have been studying from home computers in the middle of their living rooms or at their kitchen tables — often in earshot of their families. She said she doesn’t want to risk putting her students or herself in precarious situations.
‘You can bet they’re going to call and complain’
“There’s anxiety teaching sex ed in front of the parents,” the teacher said. “It’s such an intimate topic. Math [is] 2+2 =4, but when you’re talking about body parts, yes, you can bet they’re going to call and complain.
“Before the pandemic started it would look like, me sitting down in the class in a circle area,” the teacher said.
I would say that out of my co-workers that at least 50 per cent or over half will not be teaching sex ed this year.— Anonymous Sudbury teacher
“They would ask questions … I would have a question tin where they could put questions down. And I would make everybody put a question down regardless if they had one or not, so you couldn’t figure out who asked the question and it was an open dialogue.”
After speaking with co-workers, the teacher said, she’s not the only one opting out of delivering the sex education curriculum this year.
“I would say that out of my co-workers, at least 50 per cent or over half will not be teaching sex ed this year.”
CBC News reached out to the Ministry of Education, and a spokesperson said school boards are responsible for ensuring the sex education curriculum is delivered as outlined by the province.
‘Actually makes teaching the concepts a little easier’
Other teachers in the region feel differently about the pandemic’s grip on sex education this past year.
Colleen McKinnon, a remote learning teacher with the Rainbow School Board, said the shift to online learning has increased her capacity to talk about sex using new digital tools like games and Bitmojis, which are essentially cartoon avatars that children can use.
“It allows students to be anonymous. They can put in like a nickname for themselves and only the teacher can see who’s saying what. That way they’re able to engage in these games and have fun and earn points and that kind of thing, so it makes the learning more interesting.
When you click on the head, or the heart or whatever, it explains to them the concepts, the difference between gender identity and gender expression for example.— Colleen McKinnon, remote teacher with the Rainbow District School Board
“The other nice thing about online learning for this is that it allows us to use interactive tools. Before we might have had a poster or certain things, now we can actually have things that are clickable.”
McKinnon points to an interactive tool called The Everybody, which has been particularly helpful in teaching students about human development.
“When you click on the head, or the heart or whatever, it explains to them the concepts, the difference between gender identity and gender expression, for example, that actually makes teaching the concepts a little easier.”
McKinnon said the year has been such a success when it comes to teaching sex ed that whether or not virtual learning is formally implemented by the Ontario Ministry of Education, she plans to run with a lot of the digital techniques and tools she’s adopted this year — even once the pandemic is over and students are back in a physical classroom.
McKinnon said that during her remote lessons, she’s noticed her students have become more engaged with the material, and some have even directly expressed to her that they feel more comfortable learning about sexual health and human development under the remote format.
Helping teachers deliver sex ed amid COVID-19
Jessica Wood, a research specialist with the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECANN), said ensuring the subject is taught effectively during the pandemic starts with ensuring educators feel supported.
“You know, that means supporting educators in learning how to teach sex ed topics online and in the classroom,” said Wood.
“There’s privacy issues when we’re talking about certain subjects and comfort level of the students, making sure there are adequate materials that can be transferred out of the classrooms and into the online environment. There are additional issues that need to be considered.”
If they don’t get that at home and there’s nothing at school, then are they going to fall through the cracks?— Sudbury teacher
However, as daunting and challenging as teaching sex ed this year has been, Wood said she predicts the online space for the subject will grow.
While she feels strongly about her decision not to teach sex ed this year, the Sudbury teacher who didn’t want her name used said she can’t help but feel the remote learning model has been a failure in some respects.
“I know that I might be the only reliable educational voice in dealing with sex ed. I feel that kids can talk to me and I appreciate that they can talk to me … I make sure to make it an open environment.
“Some kids don’t get that at home. So if they don’t get that at home and there’s nothing at school, then are they going to fall through the cracks?”
When she asked her own children, who attend a separate school in Sudbury, if they had received the sex ed curriculum this year, both her sons confirmed what she suspected: they haven’t.