A look at the UA health curriculum and what it means for students.
BY MATTHEW DORON, ’23; JAMES UNDERWOOD, ’23; ELENA FERNANDEZ, ’23 AND CARLY WITT, ’23. PHOTOS BY BELLA VANMETER, ’22 AND SARAH MCCULLOCH, ’23. GRAPHICS BY LUCY O’BRIEN, ’22.
For years, middle school students in UA Schools took four quarter-long exploratory arts classes each year: art, life skills, tech-ed and health. In May, 2021, however, Hastings Middle School and Jones Middle School announced that a new system would be implemented allowing students to choose semester-long electives to take for two periods in their nine-period day.
This change originally arose out of a staffing imbalance last school year.
“We had more staffing per student in the related arts at the middle [school] level than we did at the elementary,” Associate Superintendent of Learning and Leadership Andy Hatton said.
One consequence of the change is that students who choose not to take health class will not receive one quarter of health class every year, as they had in the past.
Some students disagree with the decision to make health class optional.
“I think they should require health,” junior Jane Doe* said. “I think it’s really important to know how to take care of yourself, whether that be your physical health or your mental health.”
Hatton said that students would eventually still receive a health education.
“I can tell you we’re going to make sure that health is required at least once over the course of those three years,” Hatton said. “We definitely value the health component.”
While the health class requirement may be reinstated, health remains optional for the 2021-22 year.
This change, which is one of several reshaping the UA health class experience, calls into question what the health curriculum teaches.
One of the central components of the middle school health curriculum is drug education. According to Hastings Middle School health teacher Allison Tomlin, substance abuse is covered in every level of middle school health.
“We have a layer of substance misuse prevention across all three grade levels,” she said.
In sixth grade, students are taught about medicine safety and the causes of opioid addiction. Seventh grade health focuses on alcohol and vaping.
“We know that those are the two substances that… become a little bit more readily available to [students] as they get older,” Tomlin said.
Then students learn about the science of addiction in eighth grade.
Over the past several years, studies have shown that teenagers are more likely to vape than to drink and that teenage drinking rates have decreased. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report lower teenage drinking rates in recent years, while a 2019-2020 Food and Drug Administration study found that the number of teenagers who said they vaped nicotine doubled from 2017 to 2019.
Tomlin said that as a result, the curriculum has been changed to address vaping alongside more traditional drugs.
“Eight years ago, we weren’t even having those conversations [about vaping], or we were mentioning it as a positive thing: ‘This is something that people use to step down from a tobacco addiction,’” she said. “And now, in the last six or seven years, we’ve been hitting it home that, ‘Hey, here are some things that we need to talk about around [vaping], because we know [that teenagers are] very susceptible to advertising and peer pressure.’ We try to respond as quickly as we can to those types of things, but vaping is something we’ve definitely been on top of at the middle school level.”
Students at the middle school level must also be prepared for high school.
“We try to cover all of that because we know when [students] get to the high school they only have one more semester of health, and that could fall their freshman year or it could be their senior year. So we just want to make sure that they’re equipped with those tools to be healthy decision makers as high school students,” she said.
Junior Jill Smith* said her health education did not affect her decision to begin vaping.
“I took health in-person my freshman year and I think they tried to teach us about drugs, drinking and sex,” she said. “But most of the time, it was just the teachers showing an outdated video.”
Smith began vaping the summer before her sophomore year, several months into quarantine.
“The first time I hit a vape was the summer going into sophomore year through a friend, and I owned a few over that summer and then stopped once school and other activities started up again,” she said. “And then this summer I did the same thing, where I vaped over the summer and then once my last one ran out, after school started, I stopped buying any more.”
She also said that her deteriorating mental health was the reason she started vaping.
“Before quarantine hit, I would have never thought about even hitting a vape, let alone owning one. Quarantine really made my mental health decline, and so I looked for other ways to feel happy or just [to] feel something, and vaping was one of the most accessible things I found.”
In recent years, mental health has become a larger focus of the health curriculum due to concerns about stress from social media and school.
“I would say that we’re talking about [mental health problems] more, which is great,” Tomlin said. “So I think a lot more students feel comfortable talking about what’s going on in their lives. Because we’re talking about it, people aren’t silent anymore about the things that they’re going through.”
She said that she tries to get students to be vulnerable about their mental health struggles and teaches coping strategies for maintaining mental health.
“I think a lot of kids want to know that they aren’t the only ones going through a certain thing,” she said. “So I’ve based a lot of my instruction on open conversations that we have, just letting kids share about their lives and what’s going on.”
Doe said she was concerned about the students who took health several years ago that haven’t been taught the updated curriculum.
“[When I took health], I think there was a lack of content about mental health and just relationships in general; it was mostly physical health, which of course was important, but personally I’d like to see more content about other relationships and communication and just overall well-being,” she said.
According to standards documents published by the Ohio Department of Education, “[each] district should consider age-appropriate content and develop their own curriculum based on the needs of their students and community.”
“Ohio is rare in this setting,” UA Schools Chief Academic Officer Keith Pomeroy said. “This is left to what they’ll call ‘home rule.’ So it’s a local decision for each district.”
Ohio is the only state without a statewide health curriculum. While the state has comprehensive math and language arts standards, there is no health curriculum.
While this lack of statewide curriculum pertains to the entire subject of health, it can become especially relevant on the topic of sex education. Despite the lack of curriculum, the law requires that abstinence be taught.
“[The state] didn’t give us prescribed standards, [they didn’t say] ‘teach this at this grade level,’” Hatton said. “But when you do teach it, it has to be abstinence-based.”
While Ohio requires that students be taught about abstinence, the curriculum is not required to be medically accurate or comprehensive. Students also do not have to be taught about consent, sexual orientation, gender identity or contraceptives.
“We’re abstinence-based, [so] obviously we’re not getting into the ins and outs of contraceptives and those types of things,” Tomlin said. “Everything we’re providing curriculum-wise is based on abstinence.”
Pomeroy said there is a difference between an abstinence-based curriculum and one that is abstinence-only.
“The [UA Board of Education] was clear [when reviewing the curriculum several years ago] that abstinence-based is the approach they would take. So there is a difference between abstinence-based and abstinence-only. It’s not an abstinence-only approach, it’s an abstinence-based approach,” he said.
Doe said she believes abstinence should be promoted but that students should be taught other options.
“I think it’s important to educate [students] on what their options are,” she said. “Obviously, whatever action you take has different consequences, so I think whatever has the least negative consequences for a person should probably be promoted by the high school, but I think that they should put all the options on the table and tell you what the consequences of your actions are going to be.”
Though Doe said she believes the curriculum should provide options, she also said that she supports a strong emphasis of abstinence.
“I probably do agree that they should probably promote abstinence… I think maybe for the school district to promote that is probably the right thing since, objectively, it has the least amount of negative consequences,” Doe also said.
Other students disagree with the abstinence education requirements.
“I hate abstinence-only education,” senior Alyssa Greene said. “If kids want to have sex, they’re going to have sex. And realistically speaking, most kids—teenagers—want to have sex. So by teaching them, ‘Wait till you’re older’ or ‘Don’t [have sex] at all,’ it’s dismissive, and the kids feel like they lost… the safety of an adult conversation when the adult just brushes it off, like, ‘Wait till you’re older. You’re too young.’”
Greene said she supports every student’s right to choose whether or not to be abstinence, but believes the curriculum should emphasize choice.
“Abstinence is a great choice for the individual, if that’s what they want to do, but you should not treat the entire student body with the expectation that that’s the choice we’re all going to make,” she said. “And we should educate for the majority. Otherwise you’re just going to create more issues.”
In the past, UAHS’s required health class covered topics including “human sexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, proper contraception and birth control use, rape, and sexually transmitted diseases, in addition to abstinence,” according to a 2000 article published in Arlingtonian. “Handouts for [the course] included locations to purchase latex condoms, as well as step-by-step instructions on how to properly put on and use the contraceptive device,” the article stated.
That curriculum upset some UA residents, and a local group called “Concerned Parents for an Abstinence-Based Sex Education” (CPABSE) was founded in 1994 to fight against the curriculum. In 1995, the Board of Education replaced it with an abstinence-based approach.
At the middle school level, a long-time supplement to the eighth grade health curriculum called “Respect Yourself” was discontinued. For several decades, “Respect Yourself,” a program performed by UAHS students, taught eighth graders about abstinence and choices regarding sexual activity. The facilitator of the program at the high school, UAHS theater arts teacher Greg Varner, said that the Board of Education had to approve the script, and the program had to strictly follow those guidelines.
“It was board-approved, same as [a] curriculum would be,” he said. “We always tried to honor [that] this is what they want, because this is what is being taught.”
He said that the program ended during the 2019-2020 school year.
“I had an email that said ‘we’re discontinuing it until further notice’. I don’t know the reason, I just know that was a decision made.”
Since 2009, Section 3313.6011 of the Ohio Revised Code has required that “[i]nstruction in venereal disease education… shall emphasize that abstinence from sexual activity is the only protection that is 100 percent effective against unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and the sexual transmission of a virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome [HIV/AIDS].” The code also requires that a sex education curriculum “stress that students should abstain from sexual activity until after marriage.”
Over the summer, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine signed into law an appropriations bill that contained updates to this section. The updated version now requires that if a school or school district teaches sex education outside of promoting abstinence and emphasizing the effects of having a child out of wedlock, the school or district must “notify all parents or guardians of that instruction, including the name of any instructor, vendor name, if applicable, and the name of the curriculum being used.” The school or district must require parent or guardian permission before teaching any of the “additional instruction.”
“No district or school shall offer that instruction to a student unless that student’s parent or guardian has submitted written permission for that student to receive that instruction,” the section states.
The code also now requires that the Ohio Department of Education conduct an annual audit of all school districts’ sex education curriculums and publish “the name of any organization or program that provided materials to a school district regarding venereal disease instruction.” The department is also required to have their findings “prominently posted” on the Ohio Department of Education website.
One area that some students would like to see in the health curriculum is information for LGBTQ students.
Greene said that sex education should incorporate information for LGBTQ students.
“This guy [talking about sexually transmitted diseases] was like, ‘Yeah, it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, or whatever: this applies to all relationships.’ And it didn’t,” she said. “It was abstinence, which doesn’t work for anybody, but by simply talking about safe sex in general, and then adding queer sex and queer people to the dialogue [right now]; there is a lot of erasure that happens.”
She said that a lack of education about queer sexual health harms both queer students and their cisgender, heterosexual peers.
“For queer students, the impact is obvious: the blatant ignorance that we walk out into the world with. For non-queer students, it’s a little more of a gray area. It contributes to [straight students] not understanding queer people,” Greene said. “So the best way to fold queer education into health class would be to simply start.”
Where the curriculum deals with relationships, Tomlin said that there is room for representation.
“I think there’s definitely a space to make sure that everybody’s relationships are feeling honored and valued because they are, and they should be,” Tomlin said.
In previous years, elementary and middle school health classes were separated by gender at certain times, but Pomeroy said that practice will be retired this year.
“As we look at puberty and maturation, we’ll be focusing on biologically male and biologically female [content], and we’ll be looking at how [to] adjust how we introduce those concepts,” he said. “In the past we have tended to separate by gender, and we’ll be doing that instruction directly in homerooms with kids.”
Moving forward, students will not be split up by gender, Pomeroy said.
“The major change there is that we’re not taking you out of a classroom and making you make a decision about whether you’re going to one location or another; those are all going to be taught in the homeroom, and we’ll give access to biologically male and biologically female resources.”
Pomeroy also said that the elementary health curriculum has been changed with instruction on puberty and maturation beginning in fourth grade, instead of in fifth grade.
“In elementary school, when [puberty] was originally taught, it’s typically, say, a fifth grade classroom. That’ll be also dropping down to fourth grade. We’ll be introducing [those concepts] in fourth grade because we believe that it needs to be introduced earlier,” he said. “We believe fifth grade is too late to introduce these topics.”
These changes, both regarding the curriculum and how it is taught, will continue to be evaluated and changed as the district determines.
Over the past several years, many changes have been made to the health curriculum and the way the information is shared with students.
Pomeroy said that the curriculum is continuously evolving.
“As we continue to look at information with our health standards, we’ll continue to make updates along the way,” he said.
Tomlin said that she hopes that the middle school students who do take health are prepared for high school.
“My hope [is] that they feel pretty prepared moving into the high school as far as being a responsible and healthy decision maker,” she said.
*denotes a source who requested anonymity