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Planned Parenthood: Sex ed online overcomes classroom barriers

Among all the possible responses from students transitioning to virtual education spaces, Ruby Bebekian said she has been pleasantly surprised by the high level of engagement displayed by students in her sexuality education courses.

Bebekian, program expansion and curriculum specialist for Planned Parenthood of Southwest Oregon, updated the organization’s in-person programming to live, virtual education over the past year.

“Sexuality education in general is a taboo subject,” Bebekian said. “It’s hard to guarantee access to it in a perfect world. My concern, in general, moving into a virtual space was that young people would continue to have that access.”

Bebekian said she has witnessed increased confidentiality build enhanced openness and new methods of engagement among her students — often lacking in a brick-and-mortar classroom during a sex-ed class. Computer cameras do not need to be on to type a question in the chat box. Small class sizes of about 10 students each allow for one-on-one engagement and more nuanced conversation, she said.

As youth intermix online with peers they often do not know, said Amy Handler, chief of education and community partnerships for Planned Parenthood, the virtual space offers a sense of social protection conducive to learning the material, including how to identify one’s values and articulate them to others.

“There’s the security of, ‘I’m not going to see this kid on the playground ... I’m not going to be with these peers the rest of the year all the time,’” Handler said. “There’s some safety in that and security in not knowing each other, and being able to talk about a sensitive topic or something that you are really curious about and knowing that no one’s going to mock you.”

Sexuality education courses through Planned Parenthood for fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students cover puberty, birth control and bodily autonomy. Upcoming course dates are March 1-11, April 5-15, May 3-13 and June 7-17. Parents and teachers interested in accessing Live Virtual Sexuality Education for students can register online. Questions about cost and scholarships can be emailed to education@ppsworegon.org.

A training initially scheduled to begin in the spring, “Fundamentals of Sex Ed Training,” was rescheduled to the summer and incorporated into the annual sex-ed bootcamp designed for educators working with youth, Handler said. The training includes a focus on understanding sexuality, reframing messages surrounding sexual health, and addressing values-based questions in the classroom.

According to the Planned Parenthood of Southwest Oregon 2020 Impact Report, new virtual education programs reached more than 200 youth in the last quarter of the fiscal year. Over the course of the entire year, 3,197 high school students, 2,125 middle school students and 2,320 elementary school students participated in sexual health education programs.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, parallels between public health and sexual health messaging became apparent and integrated into Planned Parenthood of Southwest Oregon’s social media tactics, Handler said.

“There’s a lot of stuff that’s happening right now in our world that’s very directly related to sexuality education, like bodily autonomy, figuring out your values in this moment the personal risk assessment that we all have to do,” Handler said. “There’s a parallel between mask wearing and condom wearing — the language is really similar about making those decisions.”

Handler said Planned Parenthood of Southwest Oregon is eager to assist parents and schools with required sexuality education for youth.

The first component of the middle school sex-ed program focuses on discovering one’s values about sexuality and introducing core concepts. From there, students cover birth control and protection, sexually transmitted infections and consent, Bebekian said.

Sexuality education is a mandatory health education standard and part of required instruction in the state’s public schools, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

According to the 2019 Oregon Healthy Teens Survey, 86.4% of eighth-graders who reported having sexual intercourse said they used a birth control method — about three-quarters of respondents used a method with “low effectiveness” and less than 5% reported using a highly effective method.

Jackson County ranks below the state level in several components of comprehensive sexuality education, according to the survey.

More than half of eighth-grade respondents in Jackson County said they were taught in school how to use a condom compared to more than 60% statewide; roughly 30% said they learned how to use other birth control methods compared to more than 40% statewide; and less than 70% of Jackson County student respondents said they learned about healthy and respectful relationships compared to 80% statewide. All percentages increased among 11th grade respondents.

“Sexually transmitted diseases are Oregon’s most frequently reported infections and account for almost two-thirds of all reportable diseases,” mostly among minors and those age 15-24, according to the Department of Education.

The 2020 Student Health Survey is now available for school district participation. Information can be found on the Oregon Health Authority website.

Facing the status of comprehensive sex ed in Oregon, Bebekian said the 10-14 age group is at a critical time for learning about sexuality, as students undergo changes in their bodies, perspective-shifts and transitions from elementary to middle school and middle to high school.

“School transitions tend to be a difficult time for young people, so we want to make sure they have the information that they need prior to entering those transitions to make healthy decisions about relationships and understand consent and know what their access to birth control is,” Bebekian said.

After 12 years working in sexuality education, Handler said the past year feels like a decade of change all at once.

Still, overall, she said a trend has emerged to construct a more inclusive and holistic curriculum each year. Planned Parenthood of Southwest Oregon reviewed its own material for language inclusive of diversity of body, race, gender and disability, she said, with the hope more students could see themselves reflected in their learning and understand the value of their voice.

“COVID has been a major disrupter and has allowed a lot of the curtains to be pulled back and for us to be really honest,” Handler said. “I think a lot of light has been shined in some dark corners.”

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Allayana Darrow / Ashland TidingsPlanned Parenthood of Southwest Oregon has been giving virtual sexuality education courses during the pandemic.