Wednesday, August 17, 2022

The birds and the bees: Here’s how sex education is adapted for public schools

In Virginia, students learn about Family Life education instead of explicitly sex education. (WYDaily/Wikimedia Commons)
In Virginia, students learn about Family Life education instead of explicitly sex education. (WYDaily/Wikimedia Commons)

As discussions on sexuality and education are growing in today’s political climate, school districts across Virginia have to adapt their curriculum to meet the modern era.

In Williamsburg-James City County and York County school divisions, the curriculum for Family Life education courses are followed based on guidelines from the Virginia Department of Education, said Eileen Cox, spokeswoman for WJCC.

But recently, those guidelines are changing to fit a more comprehensive education by teaching topics such as consent and or even dating violence.

Charles Pyle, spokesman for VDOE, said the state mandates the standards of learning for every content area be assessed and revised at least every seven years. 

However, the VDOE has updated the curriculum language more frequently. The last update was in 2017 and on Wednesday there were further discussions among the Board of Education about revising the curriculum topics and language again to match changing legislation from the Virginia General Assembly.

For example, a presentation from Samantha Hollins, assistant superintendent for the department of special education and student services for VDOE, indicated that Virginia law in 2017 stated the topic of consent was permitted in the classroom but in 2019 this was changed to be a required topic. In order to comply with changing legislation, the standards of learning are modified and school districts across the state then adapt to the changes.

Some of the new legislation requires instruction on the prevention of human trafficking as well as programs that discuss the physical and emotional effects of female genital mutilation, according to the meeting’s agenda.

In proposed revisions, the new topics will be introduced at various grade levels. Human trafficking first in sixth grade and female genital mutilation first in ninth grade.

Williamsburg-James City County

In compliance with the standards of learning, teaching consent is first discussed in ninth grade.

“We teach students about refusal skills and exactly what consent is,” said Jean Trainum, coordinator of Health and Physical Education for the school division. “We teach that consent is actually two parties agreeing to these…things and giving them the skills to understand [the topic], which will serve them beyond high school.”

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Trainum clarified that topics covered in those courses span more than just the general ideas of sex education.

“It’s Family Life, so it’s not just the traditional sex education,” she said. “It’s about healthy habits, awareness of your body, lifestyle and personal choices.”

Cox said the guidelines are all developed at appropriate levels. So starting in fourth and fifth grade, students start to learn about their changing bodies and hormones. But starting in kindergarten, students learn about personal privacy and boundaries of other individuals.

Those topics cover a variety of important aspects to personal and physical growth and woven into each lesson is the idea of acceptance, said Sean Walker, assistant superintendent of Elementary Schools for WJCC.

When covering education specifically about sex, the curriculum focuses more on an abstinence outside of marriage policy.

Identifying reasons for avoiding sexual activity prior to marriage and awareness of sexually transmitted diseases are introduced in the Family Life Education curriculum beginning in Grade 5 and continuing through Grade 12,” Cox added in an email. 

Specific language in the 2017 Family Life Standards of Learning guidelines on VDOE’s website, cites teaching the value of marriage, abstinence education and the value of postponing sexual activity.

York County School Division

The education at York County aligns with the VDOE’s guidelines.

Angie Seiders, director of secondary instruction at YCSD and also a former principal, reiterated the division uses VDOE standards for education and for high school students, other topics covered is child abuse and neglect as well as emotional and sexual abuse.

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Some examples include “choosing the best way to text” as a form of stopping sexual abuse, Seiders said.

Students also watch a video about unhealthy relationships to learn about setting standards for relationships and other topics like date rape, peer pressure and alcohol.

Other topics that are covered include controlling sexual behaviors, postponing sexual relationships until marriage, the consequences of pre-martial relationships, sexual prevention and conflict resolutions skills.

Middle school students focus on physical development and students are separated by gender to talk about puberty changes, Seiders said.

Candi Skinner, chief academic officer of YCSD, who has years of elementary education experience, added the materials such as books and videos are available to the public and parents online at the school board office as well the student handbook — families can choose to opt out of the public education for their children.

When asked how the division adapts to the changing social climate, Skinner said they determine what needs to be part of the curriculum.

If the division needs to change it, they get with the community involvement team which consists of school counselors, physical education teachers, a representative from the Red Cross and parents, Skinner added.

Schools throughout the state are changing and adapting the curriculum to meet the changes from VDOE. As the curriculum is considered every few years, it is done so with input from community members.

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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