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There’s been a lot written about pandemic-induced learning loss among middle and high school students, ​since forced virtual learning and disruption exacerbated already-existing issues for vulnerable students with our school systems. However, the rapidly rising rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among teens is indicative that math and reading knowledge is not the only thing our kids are behind on. 

STI rates are rising nationwide, and the rise among adolescents is often correlated with a lack of comprehensive sexual education, according to the CDC. But why is that happening here, in Southern California? The California Healthy Youth Act (CHYA) of 2016 mandates that our state’s public schools teach all students in grades 7-12 a comprehensive sexual education curriculum at least twice in their academic careers.

However, due to lack of funding and resources or political pressure, many schools–including in Orange and San Bernardino Counties–are unable or unwilling to comply with these standards. 

Many teachers who are willing and able, even, are unsure of where to begin teaching about things like gender identity, consent, healthy relationships, and other pressing topics, since they may not have had the best education about this themselves, and aren’t sure which resources are reliable. And unfortunately, there’s no way to enforce CHYA, leaving school districts no recourse to ensure their schools are in compliance. And based on what I’m hearing from students in our region, most teens are not learning anything close to what the state mandates during sex education classes. 

This is why Planned Parenthood of Orange & San Bernardino Counties (PPOSBC) partners with local schools to teach comprehensive, CHYA-compliant sex education courses to students–and, importantly, train their parents and teachers on how to talk about these things when they may not have received much sex education at all themselves. 

Why Teen STI Rates Are Climbing 

We are seeing more new chlamydia and gonorrhea infections among young people in California than any time in the last 25 years. Among sexually active California high school teens, only half report using a condom the last time they had sex, and only 1 in 3 use a condom every time they have sex. And as of 2018 (the latest year data is available), only 47% of middle schools report that their sex ed instructional materials include information about the safety and effectiveness of FDA-approved methods to prevent HIV and other STIs. Only 25% of middle schools and 36% of high schools use instruction and materials that encourage students to communicate with parents or other trusted adults about sex and sexuality. 

These statistics correlate with what we’re seeing on the ground locally. Many of the students we interact with through our sex education outreach courses in Orange and San Bernardino Counties report not learning about STI prevention and symptoms, their rights, caring for their sexual health, healthy relationships, issues of sexuality or gender identity, or anything else beyond “the basic mechanics.” These students have access to more information than any generation before them, thanks to the Internet and platforms like TikTok. However, their STI rates are climbing and they often report not knowing exactly what to believe when they find information online or on social media. 

Why Sex Ed is So Important 

May is Sex Ed for All Month, and we’re joining fellow Planned Parenthood affiliates and other reproductive health organizations in highlighting the importance of comprehensive sexual education in our schools–especially as lawmakers in states across the country continue to pass legislation that erodes access to sex education, birth control, and abortion. 

Sexual and reproductive health is part of a whole person’s health, and our middle and high school students are whole, developing people. They cannot be fully present for their education if they are worried about being pregnant, are in an unhealthy relationship, are unable to live in their true identity, or are concerned they might have a STI. Our schools need to prioritize comprehensive sex ed as much as they prioritize the core subjects like math and reading if they want students to be able to perform to their full potential. 

Unfortunately, the way many of our schools teach it simply isn’t relevant to the lives our teens live today. On top of that, teachers and parents may not have a full understanding of how to talk about things like gender identity, or know what rights minors have to access sexual and reproductive healthcare without adult permission. All of this and more is contributing to a rise in STI rates and a number of other unhealthy behaviors and outcomes, which is why PPOSBC is in schools doing the work we do.

Learn more about PPOSBC’s sexual education programs, including resources for parents and teachers as well as our peer educator program–and help us bring better sex ed to our schools.