SALT LAKE CITY — After nearly four hours of debate, the Utah State Board of Education on Thursday adopted new health education standards for grades K-12 Thursday, updating standards that date back to 1997.
The vote culminates a near two-year process to update 22-year-old standards, which for the first time includes students in grades kindergarten through second grade.
The standards cover mental health and emotional health, substance abuse prevention, safety and disease prevention, nutrition, human development and health foundation, and protective factors of healthy self.
Instead of spelling out specific health topics in the standards, the state board will provide teachers instructional guides that address specific issues of current concern such as opioid abuse, e-cigarette use, school safety, sexual harassment, sexual abuse or sexual assault.
If standards are general "they will live longer," said Jodi Kaufman, the state board's health and physical education specialist.
"That way, with something like e-cigarettes, which is really big right now, we don't want to call it e-cigarettes because what if in three months from now it is something completely different?" Kaufman said.
Starting with kindergarten, the standards progress along the grades, she said.
"So from what a student learns in kindergarten will be built upon in first grade, and second grade will build off of first grade, and etcetera, so we build skills instead instead of repeat skills," Kaufman said.
The board launched the review of the standards in 2017, with experts reviewing former standards and preparing proposed revisions. The writing committee met more than 30 times.
The committee was made up of educators, representatives of the Utah Department of Health, the American Heart Association, Primary Children's Hospital, university professors, Utah Division of Substance Abuse Prevention and Mental Health, school health specialists and school board staff.
The committee used data and resources from the Centers for Disease Control, Huntsman Cancer Institute, Utah's Division of Family and Child Services and Health Department, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and NAMI Utah.
More than 1,000 people completed surveys and there were also six public meetings across the state to solicit comment on the draft standards.
Then came a marathon 7½-hour public hearing. On March 8, the State School Board's Standards and Assessment Committee met to make additional revisions.
On Thursday, the State School Board debated more than 20 amendments for nearly four hours — the vast majority advanced by board member Jenny Earl of Morgan. The board defeated most of the proposals.
Earl introduced a number of motions, some of which were intended to affirm parental rights. Instead of using the blanket term of "trusted adults," she asked the board to change the language to "parents or trusted adults."
Board member Jennifer Graviet, of Ogden, said the committee chose the term trusted adults over concerns that using both might imply that the parents weren't trusted "so we wanted to avoid that."
The term "trusted adult" was also selected out of concern for children experiencing sexual abuse in their own homes.
"Children should trust a person because they deserve trust," Graviet said.
Terry Shoemaker, representing the state's school boards' and superintendents' associations, acknowledged the board's deliberate process and the need for careful study and public input given the sensitive nature of subject area.
"What we need, though, is this to be finished. That's what the school boards need. That's what the superintendents need. That's what our health teachers need. They need to know. … You're talking through the nuances of some things in ways I think you're overdoing it. That's my opinion," Shoemaker said.
Shoemaker, a former superintendent, said parents will continue to review the adopted standards because they address many sensitive areas such as human sexuality. Selecting health education curriculum is the purview of local school and charter boards.
The updated standards stress sexual abstinence while allowing for the evaluation of various contraceptives as methods of preventing pregnancy, consistent with state code and HB71, passed by the Utah Legislature earlier this year.
The legislation clarified that public school educators can teach about contraceptive methods and devices, as well as their effectiveness, limitations and risks, but may not advocate for their use. State law and administrative rule allowed those discussions about contraceptives, but some teachers testified during the legislative session that they wanted a clarifying measure in law to protect them if their instruction was mistakenly construed as advocacy.1 comment on this story
"You're expected to be careful about these things and I appreciate that but this needs to be done because this has been sitting on the table for quite some time now," Shoemaker said.
According to the adopted standards, health education "helps students adopt and maintain healthy behaviors that protect health and avoid or reduce health risks necessary to make healthy decisions, achieve health literacy and adopt health enhancing attitudes and behaviors which will provide a foundation for leading healthy, productive lives."