New sex ed standards are coming to N.J. schools this fall. Here’s how some districts are preparing.
Any child whose parent objects to any part of a school’s instruction can be excused from the lesson.
After nearly 30 years in the classroom, Deptford High School health teacher Deborah Shoemaker has learned how to deftly handle potentially sensitive questions from her students about sex education.
Shoemaker gently sidesteps, and says: “Good question. Go home and ask your parents.”
While districts across New Jersey are struggling how to implement controversial sex education rules from the state Department of Education that, after a two-year delay, take effect in September, Shoemaker and other teachers in the Gloucester County school system have been presenting lessons to meet the Comprehensive Health and Physical Education standards since their adoption in 2020. For the past two years, the district says it has found a comfort level in presenting issues that are developmentally and age appropriate.
For second-graders, for example, students learn about gender stereotypes in a lesson that explains that they could pursue any interest, such as math or science, regardless of gender.
”We’re teaching the topics and standards we think students should know,” said Kevin M. Kanauss, the district’s chief academic officer. “We want to keep it to science as much as we can.”
In the meantime, school officials had been making presentations at school board meetings and fielding questions from parents and community members on how they will tackle revising the curriculum, and many have promised to post the curriculum on their school websites with dates that sensitive topics will be taught to give parents ample time to opt out.
Three guidelines outlining what schools should teach students by the end of second, fifth, and eighth grades have prompted the biggest outcry from some parents and educators. The most controversial concepts revolve around lessons that discuss gender identity by the end of second grade; puberty and masturbation by the end of fifth grade; and understanding types of intercourse (anal, oral, etc.) by eighth grade.
In a recent letter to parents, Moorestown School Superintendent Michael J. Volpe explained how his district would interpret the most controversial standards. Eighth graders will get a lesson on making healthy decisions about sex “in the same way that students learn that ‘ocular’ means having to do with the eye.”
”To be clear, there has never been and will not be explicit instructions about sexual acts,” Volpe wrote. “The definitions will not be covered in other lessons.”
Because the performance expectations from the state are “suggestions” and not requirements, some districts have no intention to address them. In North Jersey, the Garwood school board in Union County voted to reject the standards. Moorestown schools will not discuss “romantic and sexual feelings or masturbation,” Volpe wrote. Districts will be regularly evaluated by the state to determine if their curriculum aligns with the standards.
Some lawmakers and parents, and even state Board of Education members, have called for postponing the new standards to allow the state more time to review them and schools more time to develop lesson plans. But the state board said it was not authorized to delay, and schools must comply with the standards for the 2022-2023 school year.
The issue went viral and sparked heated debate among lawmakers in Trenton and during school board meetings this spring. Some people who oppose the standards believe they are too explicit, and prefer such sensitive subjects should be taught at home. The secretary of Catholic education for the Camden Diocese sent a letter to parents in South Jersey informing them how to opt out of the health instructions.
The state Department of Education has said students should be given age-appropriate information for their physical and emotional well-being, saying children who are unfamiliar with certain sexual acts may not be able to accurately report instances of sexual harm or abuse.
Districts also have the powerto get input from educators and the community. Some local districts, including Cherry Hill, Gloucester Township, Washington Township in Gloucester County, Lawnside, and Wenonah, plan to update their health curriculum this summer.
Cherry Hill School Superintendent Joseph Meloche sought to reassure parents at a recent board meeting that the district “would never put stuff together that’s going to be damaging to children.” The district plans to hire an expert to help revise the curriculum.
“Will it be surprising? Will it be things that kids haven’t heard? Absolutely,” Meloche said. “We have to prepare the kids and get them ready to receive that.”
The Haddonfield school system has hired a consultant to help review the health curriculum and figure out where changes are needed, said Superintendent Charles Klaus.
The curriculum already addresses gender identity in second grade and puberty in fifth grade. The biggest change will be teaching about healthy decisions about sex in the eighth grade instead of 11th grade, he said.
“We are pretty much already doing a lot of this stuff,” Klaus told school board recently. “We can decide what works in our curriculum.”
Gloucester Township school officials are updating their curriculum to teach health ”in a respectful way that honors” the state mandate, but also meet community standards, said Assistant Superintendent Timothy L. Trow. Some teachers are uncomfortable with some of the topics.
“We’re going to try to do it as delicately and quickly as possible,” Trow said.
Deptford is further along than many districts because it began aligning its health curriculum with the new standards for its high school and elementary students when the standards were first released, said Superintendent Arthur E. Dietz. A committee will meet this summer to work on the middle school curriculum, he said.
The curriculum is available online and parents are sent a list of topics, Kanauss of Deptford said. This past year, a handful of parents excused their children from health class for moral or religious reasons, he said.
Dietz, the superintendent, acknowledged that some parents and teachers are uncomfortable with some of the topics, and he sympathizes.
“I would rather teach my own children about these sensitive topics,” he said. “This is very foreign to me.”
Shoemaker, who is retiring this month after 27 years, said she primarily presented lessons at the high school about male and female reproductive systems, STDs, marriage, and parenthood.
“It wasn’t really heavily focused on sex,” Shoemaker said. “Personally, if I had to teach some of this racy staff I would just call out sick.”