Parents will have the option of removing their children from sex-ed classes as the province rolls out a new curriculum that moves topics of gender identity and gender expression to later grades, Ontario’s Education Minister says.

The revised health and physical education curriculum being released on Wednesday largely mirrors the previous Liberal government’s 2015 curriculum, which the Progressive Conservatives had promised to repeal. The new curriculum will include a provision that gives families three weeks notice of when sex-ed lessons will be taught, and up to five school days before the class to provide school boards with an exemption notice for their children.

Under the Liberal government, an opt-out process was available, but some boards, including the Toronto District School Board and the Peel District School Board, would not entertain requests to let students miss classes about sexual orientation, gender identity or similar issues because those areas are protected under the human-rights code. It’s unclear how school boards will adapt to the new direction.

“We do believe that parents have an important say in some of the more sensitive issues and subject matters that get taught to their children,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in an interview on Tuesday. He added later: “The overwhelming [number] of parents in this province want their kids to learn a modern curriculum that teaches respect and embraces the principles that define this nation. And I think we do that in this curriculum. But we also ensure that parents have a say.”

Several provinces, including B.C. and Alberta, also have an opt-out process for sex-ed lessons.

Ontario’s 2015 sex-ed curriculum for Grades 1 to 8, which included discussions of gender identity and same-sex marriage, became highly politicized during last year’s election campaign. Premier Doug Ford promised to replace it, saying he heard complaints from families – mostly social-conservative parents and groups – that it was inappropriate for young children.

The Progressive Conservative government replaced it temporarily with an earlier health and physical education curriculum, which included a 1998 document on sexual health.

The health and physical education curriculum being introduced this fall has some changes from the 2015 one, such as adding lessons for children in kindergarten on bullying and online safety, but does not appear to be a complete departure. The government provided The Globe and Mail with documents on Tuesday highlighting some of the changes, but not the full curriculum.

Students will learn about gender identity and gender expression in Grade 8. In the 2015 curriculum, students were taught those topics in Grade 6. Consent and online safety will be introduced in Grade 1 and kindergarten, respectively. They were previously taught in Grade 6 and Grade 5. Students will learn the proper names of body parts in Grade 1, as they did under the 2015 curriculum.

Teachers can use their professional judgement in addressing topics that go beyond those in the curriculum as long as learning expectations are met, the government said. Mr. Lecce said the government will provide guidelines for boards, and professional development for teachers.

The repeal of the 2015 curriculum and the interim curriculum last fall caused disruption in the education sector. At one point, the Premier threatened to discipline educators who defied his government’s orders to use the 20-year-old sex-ed curriculum, and launched a platform for parents to anonymously report concerns about what is being taught.

Several groups, including the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, launched legal action against the government, arguing that the province violated Charter rights by using an outdated curriculum. The case was dismissed.

Asked whether the disruption was necessary when the new curriculum includes many components of the 2015 one, Mr. Lecce said the government wanted time to consult with parents and the public, and the curriculum document reflects an emphasis on keeping children safe. It also adds new components on bullying and vaping.

“I think it’s important to listen to parents … and we did so in a way that was robust, thorough, expansive,” he said.

Tanya Granic Allen, who ran for the provincial Progressive Conservative Party leadership against Mr. Ford and has been a vocal opponent of the 2015 sex-ed curriculum, said the government has failed in its promise to repeal the curriculum. Ms. Granic Allen said that, based on comments from the government in March, she knew gender identity and gender expression would be in the new curriculum.

“Ford promised to stop forcing gender-identity theory on the classrooms. Nothing has been repealed, gender identity can still be taught to children at any grade,” she said on Tuesday.

Alex McKay, executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, said it’s important for sexual health programs to address topics such as gender identity and sexual orientation as early as Grade 3, because many children are already aware, and could have distorted views. Mr. McKay had not seen the new curriculum, and was speaking generally. (In the new curriculum, sexual orientation is a mandatory learning topic in Grade 5. In the 2015 curriculum, it was an example that teachers could use in Grade 3 when describing visible and invisible differences).

“It’s important that kids have an understanding of these issues so that they’re treating their peers with respect. Those are important issues to address early on in order to prevent bullying, and other forms of abuse,” Mr. McKay said.

He said that, historically, sexual health education has addressed topics too late because of political and ideological sensitivities. “But it’s important that programs address issues as they start to arise in children’s lives. And it’s also equally important that they do so in a comprehensive way,” Mr. McKay said.

The sex-ed component of the health and physical-education curriculum is usually taught in the spring.

The Globe and Mail, August 21, 2019