Thunder Bay

Sex ed on the radio? How the pandemic changed one high school's teaching approach

What happens when sex education can't be delivered in person, as it was pre-pandemic? For a northern Ontario high school in Sandy Lake First Nation, it's meant charting new territory: the airwaves.

'Having it on the radio was very resourceful,' says parent in Ontario's Sandy Lake First Nation

Thomas Fiddler Memorial High School in Sandy Lake First Nation in northern Ontario decided to use the pandemic's limitations as an opportunity be innovative in the way it delivered sex ed this year. (Andrei_Diachenko/Shutterstock)

Every spring, Cleopatra Kierstead prepares to talk about sex with her phys-ed students at Thomas Fiddler Memorial High School in northern Ontario's Sandy Lake First Nation. 

As much of this year's regularly scheduled programming was either cancelled or forced to evolve, sex ed in the fly-in community was no exception. 

Before the pandemic, Kierstead would invite guest speakers to help infuse the content with their expertise. One of them was typically a public health nurse with the Sandy Lake nursing station.

We're seeing different issues with the youth, for example; they're up all night and they're sleeping all day. Or because of all this time they have on their hands, you know, they're spending time online.— Cleopatra Kierstead, Thomas Fiddler Memorial High School, phys-ed teacher

To ensure students still got information they normally would receive in person, pre-pandemic, Kierstead partnered with the nursing station once again. 

After some brainstorming, they decided to create a special COVID-19-era radio program on sexual health. It was aired over three days and delivered by the local public health nurse. 

Thomas Fiddler high school is in Sandy Lake First Nation near Kenora, Ont. (Submitted by Cleopatra Kierstead)

'We went to the radio'

"We thought, 'How can we get this information out? Not only to the Grade 9 phys-ed course, but on a much larger scale, you have young adults who can also benefit from that information, or adults and seniors who would like a refresher, so we went to the radio," Kierstead said.

"We're seeing different issues with the youth, for example; they're up all night and they're sleeping all day. Or because of all this time they have on their hands, you know, they're spending time online and they're also seeing content that they may or may not have ever seen.

"So I'm getting a lot of questions from my students in regards to sexual identity, what does that mean, you know, here in a First Nation community? And being two-spirited and just exploring their identity in general. So it's been really interesting, I would say." 

Teacher Cleopatra Kierstead says she has high hopes for the sex ed curriculum's future at the school. (Submitte)

From English to Oji-Cree

The radio program featured three main areas of focus: human development, sexual health and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and consent. 

So that all members of the community could listen in, the program was translated into Oji-Cree by the First Nation's assistant director of health, Ambrose Fiddler. 

Fiddler said translating sexual health terminology, such as from English to Oji-Cree, could be a little tricky at times due to the descriptive nature of the language. He said he took extra care, so the information didn't come off as explicit. 

It's pretty difficult for parents to talk about this with their children ... I know there's a lot of parents that don't talk about sex and health, and being safe, and protecting yourself and respecting your body.— Cherish Kakegamic, parent

"The topic of sex ed, I tend to be a little bit more careful as to how I translate something. Our language is descriptive just by nature. 

"So that's one of the kind of challenges as far as anything to do with sex or sex ed — most people tend to steer clear of it," Fiddler said. 

The radio program was divided into three main areas of focus: human development, sexual health and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and consent.  (Victor Moussa/Shutterstock)

Community feedback

Thus far, Kierstead said, feedback from the community, including parents and students at the school, has been encouraging. Some parents were a little relieved to have the program air, as not all of them necessarily relished the prospect of having to give the talk to their teens.

Cherish Kakegamic said having the sex ed program air alleviated some of the stress of having to awkwardly navigate the subject with her Grade 9 teen daughter.

"I mean, it's pretty difficult for parents to talk about this with their children ... I know there's a lot of parents that don't talk about sex and health, and being safe, and protecting yourself and respecting your body.

"Having it on the radio was very resourceful," Kakegamic said. 

It started off as a little seed and then it just grew and we thought, you know, it would only be for maybe an hour and then it ended up being for three days because there's so much content.— Cleopatra Kierstead, PhysEd teacher at Thomas Fiddler Memorial High School

While the limitations imposed by the pandemic may have been what inspired the idea, Kierstead said she hopes the radio program can be carried out even after the pandemic is over and students are back in classrooms.

"It started off as a little seed, and then it just grew and we thought, 'You know, it would only be for maybe an hour,' and then it ended up being for three days because there's so much content. To be frank, I mean, you could have an entire show around human development. 

"I think it's something that even post-pandemic, it would be really important to continue and just really spread out the information because you can't have too much information in regards to those really important topics," Kierstead said.  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sam Juric

Reporter

Sam Juric is a reporter with CBC Sudbury and can be reached at sam.juric@cbc.ca.

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