Grade six and seven teachers are required to teach their students about HIV/AIDS but a lack of support from the Ministry of Education means many are not getting the lesson, according to Vancouver Elementary School Teachers’ Association vice president Glen Hansman.
Grade six and seven teachers were supposed to add new sections on HIV/AIDS to their Health & Career Education classes last September. “For the first time there is mention made to HIV/AIDS,” says Hansman. “The problem, however, is that learning resources like the books and the tools that people need to support students in their learning around these topics has not materialised to the degree that one might hope.”
Hansman says teachers have yet to receive any HIV/AIDS teaching materials from the provincial government, something he believes teachers need in order to properly instruct on the topic.
Kristen Gilbert, a sexual health educator at Options for Sexual Health (OPT), lauds the Vancouver School Board as a leader in sexual health education.
“They’ve created curriculum about sexual health from grade four to seven,” she says. “They provide a complete curriculum for their teachers and ongoing training. And I only know that because we do it in partnership with them.”
Organisations such as OPT seek to fill the gaps in sexual health education across the province.
“Nobody’s checking up on sex education,” says Gilbert. “At OPT we say it’s very hit and miss education. Throughout the province some schools are doing an amazing job but some school boards are leaving it out of the curriculum. Some teachers are doing an excellent job, some not at all and others hire us because they know they are not prepared.”
“To be fair, when you teach in elementary school you’re not an expert in all subjects,” says Gilbert. “So that’s fair and that’s one of things we do at OPT. We train teachers in this area.”
YouthCO AIDS Society mostly deals with young people in their teens and 20s, but when they do provide instruction to elementary-aged students they focus on stigma.
“They understand bullying and the stigma associated with that,” says YouthCO Sexual Health programs manager Danielle Gauld.
Gauld believes elementary school is the best time to educate students about HIV/AIDS. “This is when youth are starting to develop their belief systems, values, ideas about the world and they are still really open to new information at that age,” she says. “So it’s a perfect time. They are not too cool to ask questions, really good time to be laying foundations for later sexual health education that they’ll be getting as well.”
If schools don’t have all the same educational materials, says Hansman, HIV/AIDS education is dependent on the limitations of teachers.
“Teachers exist in the broader society,” he says. “Teachers will come to the topic with any bias, understanding and misunderstandings they might have. It could be a lack of education when they were in high school, out of date medical information, or media misinformation. This is a field that’s always evolving.”
OPT executive director Greg Smith believes education surrounding HIV/AIDS should be consistent across the province.
“In what other context would we allow important health information to be delivered to say only residents of Ontario or BC but not to the residents of another province? That’s preposterous and yet in the way that sex education is presented in the provinces that is precisely what can happen.”
A Ministry of Education spokesperson says it is not their responsibility to provide resources or materials. They do, however, recommend materials and resources through a list of links on their website.
“The Ministry lays it all out and it’s up to the teachers,” the spokesperson says. “They know the resources are available. They can go to the Ministry website, access the recommended resources, recommended websites etc, which are usually for things like Health Canada or our own Health Ministry.”
Hansman says the links are not appropriate for youth in an intermediate grade classroom. “Teachers are left to their own devices to Google and filter through secondary or university-appropriate material,” he says. “They have to go through their own assumptions and biases. A subject like HIV and AIDS is often stigmatised and that stigma is often linked to homophobia and racism.”
Although the Ministry says teachers are required to cover HIV, Hansman is not convinced it’s being taught. “It’s a requirement but is there anyone policing it?”
He blames funding cuts for the lack of support in HIV/AIDS education.
“Part of that has been the erosion of the sorts of supports that would go to schools and students when new curriculum is introduced,” he says. “In the past when a new topic [is] introduced it would be reasonable to expect the sort of help we’re asking for in this subject area would be present and forthcoming; that hasn’t been the case for a while.
“It’s a very serious gap in a very serious topic.”