When Chicago public schools reopen fully at the end of next month for the first time since the start of the pandemic, students will return to schools filled with hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, masks, forehead thermometers and air purifiers.
But almost all CPS schools will also have items that experts say will keep students healthy and safe regardless of the state of the pandemic: menstruation products and condoms.
Both will be provided as a result of a new policy adopted by the CPA Board of Education in December. A similar action that will require all Illinois schools to provide menstruation supplies garnered much more attention this spring when it was passed by Springfield state lawmakers.
It is CPS policy that schools teaching grades five and above must maintain a condom availability program as part of a broader vision of sexual health education. This means that all but a dozen CPS schools, which only educate the youngest students, will have condoms.
The idea had been in the works for years, and while it may spark some controversy, it is what many experts have agreed to be a step in the right direction for student health, said the top doctor in the country. CPS, Kenneth Fox, in an interview last week. Until now, principals have had a great deal of latitude to use their own discretion over education and gender-related resources.
“Young people have the right to accurate and clear information to make healthy decisions,” said Fox, a 30-year-old pediatrician. “And they need access to resources to protect their health and the health of others as they act on these decisions.”
Preventing ‘bad things’ is the key
Fox said the goal is prevention.
“Basically what we want to do is make condoms available to students if and when they think they need them,” he said. “… When you don’t have these protections and you don’t make these resources available, then bad things happen to young people. You are at high risk for sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancies, and these are very preventable things.
To begin with, elementary schools will receive 250 condoms, and high schools – many of which already make them available – will receive 1,000. The Chicago Department of Public Health will provide condoms free of charge to the district as part of the city’s efforts to prevent teenage pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. When a school is sold out, principals will be asked to ask for more from CPS and CRPD.
Schools will receive a letter from Fox explaining the policy to parents, and principals will receive advice on where to store condoms and how to operate the program. Condoms should be in easily accessible places around the school without being too out in the open so that there is always privacy for the students, Fox said.
“I would expect not everyone to be completely on board from the start, but I think the company has changed,” Fox said.
When asked why fifth grade was the target year, Fox said this decision was “informed by an understanding of children’s development,” and he didn’t believe there would be any negative effects on older children. youth.
In accordance with state standards, CPS’s sexuality education program includes lessons on puberty, hygiene, gender identity, relationships, sexual harassment, birth control, abstinence, and sexual abuse. prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.
“CPS emphasizes that choosing not to have sex is the norm for grade 5 students. Parents / guardians should be informed by their school if a condom demonstration will be provided, ”the program says.
Parent education will be key to putting families at ease, as will training staff so educators can chat with parents, as local schools will likely be their first stop, Fox said.
Expert: Providing condoms does not encourage their use
Scout Bratt, director of outreach and education at the Chicago Women’s Health Center, said there will be many parents who don’t believe this program is right for their family, and that it will be the responsibility of the district. listen to these concerns and offer direct communication about what condom availability means and does not mean.
“I want to be very clear that the existence of condoms does not mean that all students are going to use these condoms or encouraged to use them,” Bratt said. “The idea is to say that we are educational centers, we are essentially community health centers, and we know how to invest in the health and well-being of young people by providing comprehensive sexuality education, which means that we must also provide the resources.
“We want students to come to us and have access to these condoms for free instead of potentially having to find them elsewhere or choose not to use condoms. … It is about recognizing that the school invests in the health of young people.
Bratt said there is no evidence to suggest that access to condoms will lead more children to decide to have sex. The idea is that those who are already making these decisions will now have an easier way to protect themselves.
“It’s a harm reduction approach,” Bratt said.
The Women’s Health Center is one of 28 organizations, including local hospitals, that the CPS consulted through a sexual health advisory committee established in 2019, the district said. Religious leaders from different religions and parts of the city were also involved.
In addition to condoms, CPS’s sexual health policy provides for free menstrual products in at least one bathroom in each school. State lawmakers passed legislation in May requiring menstrual products in school bathrooms over Republicans’ objections to making tampons, towels or cups available for transgender boys in designated toilets. men.
Fox said offering free menstrual products was a matter of “fairness and justice” as many cannot access them for financial reasons, or for so-called “menstrual poverty.” Bratt said this can lead to people missing school during their period, a disastrous educational impact – and added that it is important to provide resources for those who are menstruating, regardless of their gender identity.
CPS does things backwards, says parent
Maria Serrano, whose daughter is entering her sophomore year in high school, said condoms would be a useful resource as long as sex education is up to par.
But Healing to Action, a grassroots organization that tackles the root causes of gender-based violence and advocates for better sex education, found it wasn’t.
The group said it discovered, during a 2018 public record request, that 70 percent of CPS schools were not properly enforcing existing sex education requirements, schools that serve the majority of black students and browns do not respond disproportionately.
Healing to Action also criticized CPS ‘new sexuality education policy in December, saying it does not do enough to ensure that qualified educators teach about sexual health and does not provide parents with enough resources to access sexuality. conversations with their children at home. Now teachers will only need 90 minutes of training to earn a four-year certificate in sexuality education. Previously, they had to participate in a six to eight hour training session.
Serrano, a parent advocate working with Healing to Action, said education and communication must come before condom availability. She was only aware of the new program due to her advocacy work, but did not hear any communication from CPS as a parent.
“My question is, ‘Oh my God, how come CPS wants to give condoms to children?’ Serrano asked in Spanish. “They are 10 years old, 11 years old. They are children. So why is CPS considering providing condoms? Why not provide them with information, and at the end give them the resource of a condom when they are ready to use the resources they wish to provide. For me, this is not the best option. They do things backwards.
Serrano said parents in his Little Village neighborhood might be shocked to find out about the condom program as they have very little information and not all of their children receive quality sex education.
“Why not educate ourselves as parents? In my case I’m from Mexico, it’s taboo for [kids to] talk to parents about these topics. In predominantly Latino communities, we are not ready to discuss these topics with our children. “