The Ford government is being blasted from all sides for unveiling a new sex-education curriculum similar to the previous Liberal version the premier promised to scrap, leaving the school system in tumult.
“Doug Ford wasted a year playing politics with our kids’ safety and well-being,” New Democrat MPP Marit Stiles (Davenport) told a news conference Wednesday after the province provided full details of the revamped guidelines.
“It should never have come to this.”
As reported by the Star, the curriculum put in place by the previous Liberal government has been changed to have students learn more about consent and move discussion of sexual orientation a year earlier, but delays instruction on gender identity until Grade 8. The topics of mental health, concussions, cannabis use and vaping have also been added.
New guidelines keep most of the material that caused controversy when the new curriculum was introduced four years ago, easing concerns raised by educators and others that health and physical education lessons would not be up-to-date with the social media era, and that social conservatives would forces changes putting LGBT youth at risk.
But the slightly revamped curriculum is also being slammed by former allies, including a Progressive Conservative leadership candidate who threw her support to Ford, helping him win the race on the way to becoming premier 14 months ago.
“Doug Ford promised to ‘repeal’ the Kathleen Wynne sex-ed curriculum, but this new curriculum is simply another version of the Wynne sex-ed,” social conservative Tanya Granic Allen, president of a lobby group called Parents as First Educators, said in a statement Wednesday.
“Promise made, promise broken,” she added.
The Campaign Life Coalition described the new curriculum as a “betrayal” and the “same garbage” the administration of Kathleen Wynne — Ontario’s first openly gay premier — introduced in 2015.
“Homosexuality’s snuck into Grade 3 with a wink and a nudge via the teacher prompt on accepting people ‘regardless of who they love’ without any regard for the religious beliefs of many parents,” said president Jeff Gunnarson, whose group charged the government “rigged” consultations to favour unions and “left-wing activists.”
Green Leader Mike Schreiner accused Ford’s Progressive Conservatives of using sex education as “a ploy to divide voters in the last election” and to distract from cuts to education and plans to increase class sizes.
“For months the government created unnecessary disruption and fear among students and educators that LGBTQ+ rights were not going to be respected in schools,” Schreiner added in a statement.
“In the span of a year, educators have had to sort through no less than four different health and physical education curriculums — from 1998, 2015, a revised hybrid version and today’s.”
The Ontario Physical Health and Education Association praised the new curriculum as a “thoughtful, high-quality, evidence-informed policy document” and urged the government to focus on implementing it effectively.
But both Schreiner and the NDP said Ford — despite his mantra of “respect for taxpayers” — wasted millions of dollars on public consultations and preparing the thick new curriculum document teachers will follow as kids go back to school in two weeks.
“This was a lost year,” said Stiles, her party’s education critic, crediting student protests, a court case launched by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, and a public outcry by many parents and teachers for raising concerns about returning to a 1998 sex-education curriculum.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce said he’s confident students won’t miss out on crucial information and there are no formal plans for makeup lessons for elementary students who were taught using the old curriculum in the last school year after his predecessor Lisa Thompson ditched the 2015 version.
“The way that the curriculum is built is foundation-based, so they will still be receiving some of those concepts that may not have been included” in the old lessons as they work through the new lessons this year, he told the Star.
While educators had expected the new curriculum to be released last spring, Lecce — appointed minister in a June cabinet shuffle — said boards typically teach sex-ed in the second half of the school year, so there will be time to train teachers.
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Ford had long pledged to scrap the elementary school sex-ed curriculum, saying parents had not been adequately consulted, and amid an outcry from social conservatives about age appropriateness and any talk of gender identity. His government held a series of online surveys and telephone town halls before making revisions.
“For me, this curriculum really does reflect a priority of the government’s, of educators, of parents and of (society) of keeping kids safe,” Lecce said.
The new curriculum introduces the topic of consent in Grade 1. Changes also refine teacher “prompts” and student responses that irked some parents, particularly regarding masturbation, which remains in the Grade 7 lesson plan.
With the new materials, Ontario will be introducing topics such as consent earlier than any other province, and will be among the leaders in areas of bullying, concussion, mental health and cyberbullying, “tolerance, respect and inclusion” and even cannabis use and vaping when compared to other jurisdictions across the country.
But among provinces that cover gender identity — not all do — Ontario now introduces that issue the latest, moving it from Grade 6 to Grade 8.
Rev. Charles McVety, a prominent Ford supporter and vocal critic of the 2015 curriculum, said he considers the new guidelines a victory, saying the curriculum “reflects balance and compromise on a topic of sex education that is full of passion and diverse opinions.”
“The real winners are the millions of children who will not be confronted with complex gender fluidity until the second half of Grade 8. Little children Grade 1 to 7 will not be taught multiple genders that can be chosen at will,” he added in a statement.
But the Elementary Teachers’ Federation (ETFO) said delaying gender identity discussions two years will be “contentious given that educators are seeing gender identity manifest itself in some children at a much earlier age.”
The government is also ushering in a new, standardized system for parents to opt their children out of sexual health and development lessons, which may be at odds with the current practice that some boards like Toronto and Peel have had in place, where parents cannot formally opt their children out of lessons around gender identity, citing human rights obligations.
Starting this fall, boards will have to give parents 15 school days — or three weeks’ — notice about upcoming human development and sexual health lessons with moms and dads then able to submit opt-out forms.
Campaign Life Coalition called the opt-out provisions a “deceitful farce” while ETFO and the NDP’s Stiles said they could be challenged under human rights laws.
“You do not get to opt out of human rights,” said Sam Hammond, president of the union representing 83,000 elementary teachers in public schools.