Manahil Arshad Khalil, a 12-year-old with glasses and an impish smile, sits in her Toronto bedroom, at a computer. When she finishes scribbling a math equation she holds it up to the screen and watches a Skype window framing the face of a young woman in Pakistan – her teacher.

Taped to the wall is a piece of paper on which Manahil has written her daily schedule, signing it “Manahil!!!” Like her 10-year-old sister and seven-year-old brother, she does roughly two hours of science a day, two hours of math, an hour of Islamic studies and an hour of social studies. The children take just 45 minutes of break time.

Last year, they were students at Thorncliffe Park Public School. But now they’re home-schooled, after their parents pulled them out in reaction to Ontario’s new sex-ed curriculum.

That decision put Manahil and her siblings among an estimated 2,000 kids permanently withdrawn from public school over their parents’ fears of sex ed, and whose education is now largely a mystery to authorities.

In a province that barely oversees elementary-level home-schooling and private schools, it could take years to understand the bigger implications of the “missing children.”

The controversial sex-ed curriculum now handles such topics as sexting and online safety, as well as teaching students at various ages about safe sex and gender identity, and telling them that masturbation is normal.

“It’s age-inappropriate,” said Arshad Khan, Manahil’s father.

“For my daughter, she is in Grade 6. So by Grade 6, you are teaching them how to masturbate and all these things.”

Last April, thousands of parents were marching at Queen’s Park in protest against the curriculum. But it took months for public schools to take stock of the ensuing enrolment drop.

Mr. Khan drives a taxi in Toronto, but in Pakistan, he obtained a master’s degree in education, and he is carefully overseeing his children’s education. They are university-bound, he said.

Not all children are getting that kind of quality control. Mr. Khan said it costs him more to employ two teachers to Skype with his children than it would if he sent all three to a private Islamic school in Toronto. Tuition and standards are low at many of those schools, he said.

Though academics are excellent at some of Ontario’s private religious schools, The Globe and Mail has found that some tiny Islamic schools are hiring untrained teachers. Several small schools popped up this year to accommodate new demand.

One small Islamic school in Oshawa had been started in a garage, with parents complaining the teacher sometimes didn’t show up at all.

“Having an [Ontario College of Teachers] qualified teacher is, to us, an extravagance,” said Noor-ud-Din Ghauri, the principal of Ummati Elementary School in Oshawa, which charges tuition of $50 to $150 monthly.

Private elementary schools in Ontario are not inspected, only “validated,” which means checking that basic rules are followed, such as having a principal and some kind of school-wide policy for testing and attendance. The schools do not need to follow the provincial curriculum.

There’s even less oversight of home-schooling. Parents who decide to do so must only notify the province with paperwork or possibly face a small fine.

The Ministry of Education said parents have the right to change their children’s schooling if they can’t abide by the update to the old sex-ed curriculum, which it called “dangerously out of date.”

“We respect that many parents choose to home-school their children or enroll them in private schools,” the ministry said in a statement.

Just as it’s unclear how those children are now being taught, it’s unclear how many in total have dropped out of the public system because of sex ed.

In the fall, the idea that the Toronto District School Board had lost students over sex ed was met with skepticism, with some suggesting the board was using that as an excuse for its job cuts. The TDSB’s enrolment has consistently declined for years.

But what happened this year was unusual. The TDSB, with a quarter-million students, normally uses demographic and immigration data to project enrolment within 1-per-cent accuracy, meaning its staff are off by no more than 1,700 students in the elementary grades, spokesman Ryan Bird said.

For the current school year, staff projected an increase of about 300 elementary students, in keeping with recent patterns. Instead, the TDSB elementary head count went down by 2,083, or 2,373 fewer than projected. Staff had been off by an unheard-of 1.4 per cent.

At the TDSB, the five schools that lost the most students were in neighbourhoods at the centre of the sex-ed protests: Thorncliffe Park, Manahil’s old school, lost two full Grade 1 classes.

It’s less clear how much sex ed was to blame for an unprecedented enrolment drop at the Peel District School Board, which covers Toronto’s western suburbs.

Unlike the shrinking TDSB, Peel has grown steadily for years. The fall of 2015 was the first time in many years that the student population declined overall, spokeswoman Carla Pereira said.

The number of elementary students decreased by only 728 from October, 2014. But staff had projected an increase of 900. Like the TDSB, they were off by 1.4 per cent.

Ms. Pereira said the board has since gained about 1,000 students and doesn’t believe sex ed was a significant factor in the dip in numbers. Many South Asian families took fall vacations, she said.

The second-highest drop in the Peel system was at James Potter Public School in Brampton, which has many students from the Sikh community, which was vocal in the sex-ed protests.

Last September, two new Sikh private schools opened in Brampton, adding to two existing ones. The parents who flocked to them were likely swayed at least in part by qualms over the curriculum, said one man who volunteers at newly opened Gobind Sarvar School.

“It’s hard to put a number on it,” said the man, who didn’t want to be identified. “I think [sex ed] was probably something that tilted it.”

Last week, Manahil said she wants to return to public school when she gets to Grade 9.

She is remembering more of her lessons from home-schooling than she did at public school, she said. But her favourite part of school was playing tag and basketball with her friends at gym and recess.

“High school’s important,” she said. It’s something “that you want to enjoy, with friends.”

She also misses French class, which she loved. “I still have all my Grade 5 work sheets in French and I’m revising them so I can get better,” she said.

However, the girl said she understands why her parents pulled her from school. Her little brother would learn the names of “body parts,” she said, lowering her voice to a whisper. For the Grade 6 curriculum, “I would feel more comfortable having my parents teach me this stuff, not someone I’ve known for a year,” she said.

Manahil’s mother, Makka Haram, said she talks to her girls at age 10 about puberty. Explaining sex happens later, when they are closer to adulthood and marriage, she said.

When asked what he objected to in the curriculum, her father pulled out a single-page flyer that was handed out at a local mosque, after being photocopied from another mosque in Mississauga.

“SAY NO!” the page was entitled. “SEX-ED Curriculum: SEX Without Love, Moral and Societal Consequences.”

Mr. Khan said the “community partners” the ministry talked about consulting had too big a role – “for example, like the dildo makers and those companies.”

In fact, those who were consulted, according to the ministry, included more than 70 “health-related organizations,” as well as universities, colleges, police and children’s aid societies.

Mr. Khan said he is doing his best to protect his children while staying open to suggestions for their schooling – including their own requests, whether it’s for basketball or French or even returning to high school, after the sex-ed lessons have mostly passed.

“I don’t impose anything on my children,” he said.

TORONTO — The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, May 24, 2016 9:43PM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, May 25, 2016 9:30AM EDT