During the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching, sports, after-school care, and more have been disrupted in Chicago Public Schools. For some CPS students, basic access to sexual health information and testing for sexually transmitted infections (STI’s) also paused.
CHAT, the Chicago Healthy Adolescents & Teens program, provides onsite sexual health education and optional and confidential testing for gonorrhea and chlamydia, as well as private one-on-one sessions with a health educator. CHAT is a collaboration between the Chicago Department of Public Health and CPS, and is operated by Planned Parenthood of Illinois. CHAT doesn’t replace the current sexual health education at CPS but complements it by providing sexual health services to students.
Cary Archer, manager of education and outreach for PPIL, said CHAT allows programming to be brought into a familiar space so young people can prioritize taking care of their sexual health.
Schools must opt into the program and CHAT has the most participants from Chicago’s south and west sides. A health educator will set up onsite testing at the school, and every student goes through the process for anonymity so others don’t know who tested and who did not. If a student tests positive, Planned Parenthood will follow-up with treatment plans.
Then, that student gets the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a health educator to ask questions and receive a flier about the CHAT website. The website provides information on STI’s, pregnancy, birth control, identity, relationships, menstruation, different types of sex and body basics.
In 2019, a total of 32,150 chlamydia cases and 14,315 gonorrhea cases were reported to CDPH. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are highest among adolescents and young adults in Chicago, individuals from age 13 to 29 make up nearly 70% of all cases.
Both STIs can be prevented with the use of condoms but, when contracted, often don’t present with side effects. That’s where CHAT comes in.
Sarah Parchem, program director of adolescent sexual health under the MICAH (Maternal, Infant, Child and Adolescent Health) bureau at CDPH, said that even in good times, sexual health can be ignored.
“Sexual health education has been considered extra in the best of times and during COVID-19,” she said. “Sexual health education is not optional, it’s really important fundamental for young people.”
Parchem’s role with CHAT is general oversight. She says with CHAT, CPS students can access healthcare services in the moment without restrictions and barriers.
“The STI testing sets CHAT apart from other programs because it lets young people know what their rights are, with and without parental permission, and in the moment, they are presented with an opportunity to exercise that right with a free and confidential test.”
Parchem encourages students to check in on their bodies and test if they are worried, just to be safe and also to normalize testing as routine sexual healthcare.
She said the hardest part of teaching sexual health education across CPS is making sure it is actually implemented as it should be. Illinois recently passed the REACH (Responsible Education for Adolescent and Children’s Health) Act that mandates sexual health education in the state to be age-appropriate, inclusive and consent based but even with that new mandate, organizations such as Healing to Action say it’s not enough, especially if it is not being implemented.
While CPS did implement a new sexual education policy in December 2020, it reduced the length of training sexual health education teachers must complete to earn a four-year certificate from a maximum of eight hours to 90 minutes.
Parchem said that CHAT must not be seen as a replacement to any sexual health education students may be receiving.
“No one can be in all classrooms and all schools at once, but the idea is that students are also getting sex ed for multiple days and weeks in addition to CHAT,” she said. “If sexual health education is not being prioritized, it just makes it that much harder to present this material to students.”
The CHAT testing program plans to return to CPS this spring.