Parents will be able to exempt children from some of Ontario's new sex-ed curriculum

The Ontario government's revised sex-education curriculum for elementary schools includes instruction on health, cyber safety and consent, and requires school boards to allow parents to exempt children from certain teachings — though it's not clear how that policy will play out.

The revamped curriculum includes most of the elements of a 2015 version that, while in opposition, the Progressive Conservatives criticized as ideological and later scrapped when they formed government.

The new curriculum, released Wednesday, will replace a controversial, 20-year-old teaching plan brought in after the PCs took power last year. It requires school boards to allow parents to exempt children from teachings on human development and sexual health.

"The focus of this curriculum is safety. We made that a central foundation of success," said Minister of Education Stephen Lecce. 

"We're giving young people the tools they need to succeed."

The updated Elementary Health and Physical Education Curriculum also includes learning on issues around cannabis use and concussions. 

Brenna Owen/CBC

School boards across the province will need to develop a "procedure allowing parents to exempt their child from instruction of the human development and sexual health education component" of the curriculum, the ministry said in documents posted online. 

"Currently, not all school boards across Ontario have policies in place to address the exemption of children from sexual health education," the government noted, adding that policies are to be in place by November. Online resources will also be made available for parents who wish to tackle those topics at home.

Exemptions not new

Religious and conscientious exemptions were available under the previous Liberal government, though those instances were addressed on a case-by-case basis and school boards were not required to have a codified policy in place. Some school boards also refused to allow exemptions for issues covered by the human rights code, such as sexual orientation.

Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO), told CBC News that teachers are happy to "finally" have this curriculum in place, but added he is concerned about how opting out will be handled. 

"We're talking about human rights across the board, and to be able to exclude certain children from particular lessons is extremely problematic for us," he said.

Last year, Premier Doug Ford's government repealed a modernized curriculum introduced by the Ontario Liberals that included lessons on sexting, same-sex relationships and gender identity. Instead, educators were instructed to teach students material that borrowed heavily from a 1998 curriculum while the government completed consultations with parents and other stakeholders.

The new curriculum will return to teaching many of the controversial topics covered in the discarded 2015 curriculum, but in some cases will do so when students are older. For example, concepts of gender identity — previously introduced to students in Grade 6 — will now be taught in Grade 8.

David Donnelly/CBC

Other concepts, like sexual orientation, are now being taught in Grade 5 instead of Grade 6, Lecce said.

"Young people are identifying earlier that they are from the LGBTQ community, and I want them to know that irrespective of their orientation, or their identity, or their heritage or faith, that they deserve the respect and human dignity that every child in the classroom ought to have."

Speaking to reporters at the legislature, NDP education critic Marit Stiles said the Ford government "wasted a year playing politics with our kids' well-being"  as teachers worked from an outdated curriculum developed before the widespread use of the internet.

"I think it's been pretty unforgivable," Stiles said.

Hammond echoed that sentiment.

"It is concerning that this government, in my mind, played politics with student's lives."

$1M in consultations 

The PCs spent more than $1 million on online consultations "only to release a new curriculum that is largely unchanged," she added. 

The government's repeal of the former curriculum sparked considerable controversy and launched a charter challenge from the ETFO and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. The groups argued changes made by the government infringed on teachers' freedom of expression and put students at risk by failing to be inclusive.

A divisional court dismissed the challenge in February.

The PC's decision to mandate exemption policies for controversial subjects drew mixed reaction from social conservatives. Tanya Granic Allen, a former PC leadership candidate and one-time Ford ally, accused the premier of flip-flopping on a promise to repeal the province's sex-ed curriculum. 

"The Kathleen Wynne sex ed is still very much being taught, and nothing has been repealed. Doug Ford has lied," Granic Allen said, adding in a statement that "inappropriate material such as gender identity theory" should have been eliminated altogether from the new curriculum.

But evangelical Christian leader Charles McVety, president of the Canada Christian College, said he was happy with the news, calling it a "compromise" that "gives the authority of education back to the parents."

"This is a great day for children and a great day for parents in Ontario in education," he said.