Almost two years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Connecticut students are still at risk – and not just from the virus. Connecticut still does not require a comprehensive sexual education course for high school students.
Schools in Connecticut are only required to teach human growth, development, and disease prevention, without coverage of basic consent, contraception, or safe sex. Before the pandemic, only 57% of adolescent girls and 43% of adolescent boys received formal instruction about contraception. The pandemic only underscored the importance of comprehensive sex education for high school students in Connecticut.
During the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, students faced a new learning environment as classes were often held online or in hybrid formats. Many schools modified their curricular requirements. According to a 2020 survey by Common Sense, 59% of teens felt online learning was worse than in-person learning and 61% feared of falling behind academically due to the pandemic. Two years later, the extent of student learning loss is now evident.
Sex education during the pandemic often fell short as engagement tanked and students were unable to express opinions and questions in remote learning environments. Safe spaces to talk about intimate topics in classrooms were turned into anxiety-inducing remote environments where sensitive topics were potentially presented in front of siblings and parents.
Students were aware of this shift, and it shows. A recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that 58.2% of adolescents surveyed answered that the COVID-19 pandemic “negatively” or “very negatively” affected their relational life.
According to a study published in the Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology, for most students the onset of sexual activity occurs by age 16 or 17; 20% of students have sexual intercourse by the time they’re 15 years old. Allowing teens to graduate from high school with only limited coverage of consent, contraceptives, cervical cancer, and sexually transmitted infections as they enter adulthood is unacceptable. The Guttmacher Institute found that programs which “withhold information about contraceptive methods do not stop or even delay sex,” and leave adolescents at a higher risk for pregnancy and STIs. Schools that fail to prepare students for their lives as sexually active adults are committing educational malpractice.
Right-wing groups, such as the organization Stop CSE Connecticut, have expressed that these programs are putting parental rights at risk and robbing them of their role in their child’s sexual education. The repercussions of not mandating sexual education, however, are clear. The lack of comprehensive sex education — combined with months of social isolation — contributed to an increase in cervical cancer and STI rates. Evidence has shown that comprehensive sexual education actually delays initiation of sexual intercourse, but Connecticut schools have yet to adopt this commonsense approach.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as syphilis and gonorrhea, did not stop during the lockdown – far from it. Between 2017 and 2021 the Pew Charitable Trusts reported that syphilis cases rose by 184%. Syphilis cases also increased 24.1% between 2020 and 2021. Most of these cases occurred in adolescents. Indeed, experts note that the rate of STIs may be even higher due to decreased testing in recent years. Over the past decade, funding to combat STIs fell by 40% despite rising infection rates. Young people now account for 50% of new STIs every year.
High schoolers are having sex but are not given the information necessary to protect themselves. Meanwhile, funding for programs targeting STIs is being reduced and rates of preventable conditions are rising. It is past time to invest in the future health and well-being of our youth.
State legislators need to take action. Every high school student in Connecticut should receive comprehensive sex education before they graduate. In 2022, House Bill 6622 “sought to require instruction on sexual harassment, sexual assault, adolescent relationship abuse, intimate partner violence, and human trafficking.” Unfortunately, this bill did not pass. As a new legislative session begins in January, legislators must make high quality, comprehensive sex education a priority. Connecticut must provide adolescents with access to a wide range of information now.
Christiana Carrillo, a resident of Stratford, is a senior Psychology and Health Policy and Management double major at Providence College.