Iowa Code requires schools to provide an option for students to “opt out” of health class. To do so, students must have a parent or guardian express religious reasons for taking their child out of the course. According to Schumacher, an average of 30 West students a year utilize the waiver.
“Because we think it’s an important topic, and we think it’s important for all students to have access to, I would want all kids to take our health classes,” Schumacher said. “However, I know that … students can get accurate information from their parents too. If that’s happening in the cases of the waivers, then that’s fabulous too.”
Bassuk believes taking the sex education course is essential, and much of the hesitation may stem from a feeling of discomfort surrounding the subject.
“I think there’s some sort of expectation that teens will be uncomfortable talking about sex and sexual health,” Bassuk said. “My guess is that that contributes to why some people opt out of it.”
This was the case for one sophomore, who is choosing to remain anonymous. Following what many of their friends were doing, they wanted to opt out to avoid the perceived awkwardness of the course. However, when trying to get their parents to sign the waiver, they were given a choice: learn about sex education at home or take the class at school. The source chose the latter and took health third trimester of 2020.
The course starts off with topics surrounding mental health, drugs, alcohol and nutrition. However, once COVID-19 hit and online Zoom classes began, the source feels the topic of sex education was missed entirely.
“I completed pretty much the entirety of ninth grade health class by spending 25 minutes filling out worksheets about drugs, alcohol and sports … We never actually did anything related to sex ed whatsoever,” the source said. “According to the school, I have been 100% educated in the necessary information regarding the fundamental processes of my body and the bodies of my opposite sex classmates, which isn’t true at all.”
The source has learned the majority of their sex education knowledge from watching the Netflix show “Big Mouth.” Though the cartoon covers puberty and sexual relationships, among other similar topics, they still worry this gap in their education may prove problematic.
“I feel like I’m missing out on really important stuff, which I will have to figure out on my own and maybe lead to embarrassment, miscommunication [and] misunderstanding in my future relationships,” the source said. “I, and dozens of my classmates, slipped through the cracks of the school system and could be in a constant, humiliating struggle in our relationships for years to come.”
Scheetz is well aware of the impacts a subpar sex education can have. Growing up, the curriculum she received was primarily fear-based and abstinence only.
“It took me quite a long time to learn even the things that I’m teaching as an adult,” Scheetz said. “It felt like I was missed, that I didn’t get the information that was pertinent to me and that was important to me, so I had to kind of learn all of this on my own.”
Because of this, she centers her lessons around providing factual information and encouraging students to make their own choices.
“We want students to feel empowered and have the information and resources necessary to make decisions that they feel proud and good about [and] feel less shame and stigma,” Scheetz said.
Though efforts are being made to reduce the stigma surrounding sexual health, Spicher feels it still plays a large role in preventing these conversations.
“[People] are in fear of saying something wrong because maybe they don’t know much about the topic, so they’re scared,” Spicher said. “They’re scared of hurting someone’s feelings or judging them in a wrong way.”
Despite observing students typically feeling uncomfortable speaking with adults regarding topics of sexual health, for Rundquist, the virtual environment has facilitated conversations he feels students may have previously shied away from.
“I have found it interesting teaching the course online,” Rundquist said. “Students are more willing to ask questions using the chat box, which I encourage. We’ve had several good discussions.”
To facilitate conversations and discussions during class, he focuses on connecting with students to foster a comfortable and safe classroom environment.
“[I try] to build relationships with my students and help them to become more comfortable with me. That is so important because if we’re unable to do that, then it’s that much more difficult to have classroom discussions,” Rundquist said. “As the students learn more about me and as they realize that I’m just very open about my life, it seems to help them to open up a little bit more.”
Schumacher hopes productive conversations and the updated curriculum can work to alleviate the stigma surrounding sex.
“We just need to normalize the topics,” Schumacher said. “Sexual health has been a taboo topic for probably many families for years, and we just need to get to the point that that’s a normal thing that we talk about and ask questions [about.]”
“We think its important to educate about sex and relationships from a sex positive lens,” Wotherspoon said. “We want people to realize that healthy sexual relationships are a good thing.”