Just like almost everything in our world, sexual health education was upended in March as shelter-in-place orders blanketed California counties to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Like many education-focused organizations, the pandemic and the shift from in-person to distance learning has forced Health Connected, a local nonprofit, to consider the very nature of health education. Is public health the responsibility of the individual or of the collective community?
Many people think that the goal of sexual health education is to ensure that individuals are given tools to make informed choices about their health — to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, for example. And certainly that is an important element. But sex ed is as much about building collective social skills as it is about providing information to individual students. Individual choices don't happen in a vacuum, they happen within a social environment. Sexual health choices made by a young person today and throughout their lives not only affect themselves, but others as well.
It was for this reason that pre-COVID, Health Connected, a leading provider of school-based sexual health education in the Bay Area and throughout California, had a strong bias toward delivering sex education in person as a strategy to cultivate vital adolescent social skills. We considered the online environment to be impersonal, denying students a crucial connection with each other and with our health educators. Nothing can replace face-to-face engagement, but come March we found ourselves needing to try. Like many nonprofits providing vital services, the pandemic wasn't something we could wait out — literally thousands of students were counting on us.
The question we faced was how do we continue to cultivate the collective social skills of students at a time when everyone is more physically isolated from one another? How do we establish social norms of respect, affirmation, and empathy in a "classroom" of rectangles on a screen? We had to entirely reframe how we think about the balance of the individual and collective elements of sex education.
With those questions in mind, Health Connected's team quickly pivoted from 100% in-person instruction to 100% online instruction starting in April 2020. We have developed live, virtual classrooms for students that promote participation and maintain student safety.
We are creatively using the available technology to continue providing students a fun and interactive learning experience. To ensure that students with different learning styles could connect with the material, we developed a variety of additional activities that students can do on their own time.
It turns out distance learning has its perks when it comes to sex education. Some students have expressed more comfort in learning about their bodies from the privacy of their homes. Increased anonymity through virtual classrooms has encouraged some students to inquire more boldly. And online instruction enables a more democratic classroom where no single student can dominate the conversation.
The digital world has also unlocked tremendous possibilities for sexual health education. Health Connected can now serve communities that may not have had access to inclusive, comprehensive sex education. This not only creates important social-emotional learning opportunities available to more students, but also provides invaluable support to more trusted adults in their conversations about relationships and sexual health with their children and teens.
To date, Health Connected has delivered sexual health education online to 6,000 students, with another 8,000 yet to receive instruction in the current school year. At some point schools will return to "normal," and our educators will again be in front of a classroom. But COVID has taught us that sex ed is not an either/or situation but rather a "both/and." The physical classroom provides valuable opportunities for collective social experiences in sex education, and the virtual classroom provides important opportunities for deeply personal individual experiences in sex education.
Health Connected is one of 10 local nonprofits that benefit from contributions to the Almanac Holiday Fund. To donate to the Holiday Fund, go to siliconvalleycf.org/almanac-holiday-fund. To learn more about Health Connected, go to health-connected.org.
Abigail Karlin-Resnick is the executive director of Health Connected.