New health, sexual education guidelines pass state board unanimously

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education unanimously passed the state’s first health and sexual education guideline changes in 25 years Tuesday morning — revising the framework to include more LGBTQ+ inclusive language, update sexual health and consent standards, bring in media and technology considerations, and more.

“The overarching goal of this framework is to foster healthy, safe, equitable and inclusive learning environments that enable success in school and in life for students of all identities and backgrounds,” said DESE Student and Family Support Associate Commissioner Rachelle Engler Bennett, presenting the 2023 revised framework to the board Tuesday.

The vote is the culmination of a review of the 1999 Massachusetts Comprehensive Health Framework launched in June 2018 under the Baker administration. The Healey administration announced the draft of the framework update convened by about 50 review panelists of various backgrounds in June, followed by a 60-day public comment period with nearly 5,400 responses.

The board released a final draft revised based on public comment ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.

The framework is non-mandatory, and final curriculum decisions remain at the discretion of individual school districts.

Key updates in the 2023 framework include: emphasis on practices to “maintain lifelong physical, mental/emotional, and social health;” updates to include newer health and technology factors like social media and vaping; inclusion of media literacy as a component of health and well-being; and trauma-informed integration of skills for “personal safety, personal boundaries, and child sexual abuse prevention.”

The framework also includes frequently-debated touchpoints regarding the inclusion of LGBTQ+ identities, particularly regarding sexual education curriculum.

“It’s so important that we give kids windows through which they can see the world and mirrors that they can see themselves, in addition to helping these kids by providing age-appropriate education to students about diversity in sex and gender,” said Massachusetts parent Adam Schepis in support of the updates Tuesday. “I believe that will lead to a more informed, accepting and empathetic future generation.”

Speakers Tuesday also praised the inclusion of topics like expanded sexual consent education

The updated framework also received pushback from vocal opponents, many of whom argued the sexual education and other topics included should be taught at home at the discretion of parents or are age-inappropriate within the grades they may be taught.

In a summary of the public comment, survey respondents broke on several broad statements regarding the framework by relatively narrow margins. Asked whether the “vision is clear and compelling,” 57% agreed. Asked whether the standards “represent a reasonable progression of expectations for student learning,” 53% disagreed.

Board members expressed gratitude to the “enormous amount of work” that went into the process and expressed optimism about the upcoming implementation of the guidelines.

The updates offer leads to update more curriculum guidelines and keep them current, speakers said, like the digital literacy and computer science framework.

“We’ve now worked through all of the curriculum frameworks during the time Chair Craven and I and member Stuart have been on the board, and so what I would just say is don’t stop,” said board member Michael Moriarty. … “They should be working with continuous improvement as just part of the culture of this department, of our entire educational system.”

The passed 2023 Massachusetts Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Framework is available on the state Department of Education website.

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