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Opt-in or opt-out? Carroll County teachers expected to contact all parents about sensitive educational material

Carroll County Public Schools teachers must be diligent this year in reaching out to parents who don’t complete and return permission forms for their children to participate in certain health subjects.

That’s what the Board of Education approved during Wednesday’s meeting in listening to a proposal for several changes to the 2020-21 school curriculum.

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The proposal, submitted by Director of Curriculum and Instruction Angela McCauslin, and led by Chief of Academics, Equity and Accountability Jason Anderson and Assistant Supervisor of Health Education Christine Tobias, cited Code of Maryland Regulations that state Family Life and Human Sexuality will now be “opt-out” instead of “opt-in” for elementary, middle, and high school students.

Tobias said the change came about because of an equity issue ― the state discovered fewer permission forms for Family Life were returned in certain districts, so in order to provide all students with an equal opportunity the COMAR switch was suggested and recently approved.

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“All of this is really to help us to make a well world, and it starts with our students,” Tobias said.

Board President Donna Sivigny later pointed out that COMAR allows local schools systems to have the authority to figure out how they want to approach the Family Life and Human Sexuality portion of the curriculum (some of which involves gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation). Sivigny said the county needs to continue to reach out to all families when dealing with important yet sensitive material.

“Don’t get lost in the nomenclature of whether it’s an opt-in or an opt-out,” she said during the meeting. “We need a response from the parents.”

Board Vice President Marsha Herbert agreed.

“I taught this class many moons ago,” she said. “It is so important as an educator to do an opt-in because you have more contact with those parents. This is a sensitive subject, and we need to be contacting these parents instead of just doing an opt-out and then no one knows what’s going on.”

Other health curriculum changes include lessons on nicotine and substance abuse prevention, according to the proposal, as well as training teachers and students about Naloxone for treating an opioid overdose.

Other subjects that included some changes in the proposal were math, world language, and library media. But board members and Superintendent Steven Lockard debated the COMAR jargon, and the “opt-in” or “opt-out” specifics, for some time.

“We’re saying, we think that we’re able to connect with everybody,” Lockard said. “Our expectations should be, we should hear from everybody. Which means you still have the opportunity to ‘opt-out’ or ‘opt-in.’ You’re still going to get both of those choices. But we’re requiring a response from everybody.”

Board member Tara Battaglia said parents had approached her on the subject and said they’d be giving up their rights by not being able to give consent for a teacher to teach something to their children.

“I want to be able to have that option,” Battaglia said. “Do I allow my child to do something or not?”

The board agreed that Carroll County’s track record for communicating in situations such as this has been stellar. Sivigny said many parents are engaged when it comes to education, and it’s “a core strength of our community.” But Sivigny and her fellow members didn’t agree with the proposal aligning with COMAR’s change.

Instead, they felt strongly that every parent should make the decision first.

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“There’s just way too much capability of this getting lost in the shuffle, and you just assume that if you haven’t heard from somebody that they’re in,” Sivigny said. “We don’t want to take that right away from the parents who may have just missed it.”

Lockard said putting the onus on the teacher to be sure everyone responds via permission form will ensure the proper education is given.

“They’re going to let us know, and for the handful of kids in my class that I haven’t heard from, I’m going to send a reminder, I’m going to call them individually, I’m going to email them, and so on,” Lockard said. “Now I’ve heard from everybody and everybody is given the choice of opting out or opting in. In that regard, I feel like we meet the intent of whatever is being asked of us, because we’re taking it three steps further and trying to contact everybody.”

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