Then and now: an insider's perspective to the Ontario sex-ed curriculum

The Ford government has brought significant changes to Ontario. In his conservative (and arguably regressive) agenda is Ford's unsettling plan to repeal the current Ontario sex-ed curriculum and revert back to the 1998 curriculum - a program that doesn't include topics like same-sex marriage, consent, online safety and gender identity.

Many students are at the mercy of provincial education systems to gain access to factual information regarding safe sex and healthy sexuality, and it's crucial that the curriculums taught to these students are progressive and up-to-date.

The plan to change the Ontario's sex-ed curriculum poses interesting questions regarding where Ontario is headed in the time of the Ford government. What does this change mean for the health and safety of youth in Ontario? What factors lead to the initial overhaul of the curriculum in 2015? What voices are advocating for the reinstatement of the 1998 curriculum?

Lauren Tedesco served as the Director of Communications to the Minister of Education during the release of the updated 2015 Health and Physical Education curriculum. Following three years at the Ministry of Education, Lauren became the Director of Communications to the President of the Treasury Board. She is currently a professor at Sheridan College in the Public Relations - Corporate Communications program. A key member during the development of the 2015 curriculum, Lauren was at the front lines during its development and initial rollout. We had the opportunity to speak with Lauren Tedesco about the initial response to the 2015 curriculum and what the removal of this program could mean for youth in Ontario.

Before 2015, Ontario's Sex and Physical Education Program dated back to 1998. It severely lacked the proper terminology to address modern issues in youth sexuality. Tedesco describes the environment which prompted an overhaul of the curriculum in 2015:

The Health and Physical Education curriculum had not been updated since 1998 - before Facebook, Snapchat, smartphones or the word 'sexting'. It was dangerously out of date - over 15 years-old,” says Tedesco. “Ontario is a leader in education but at the time, had fallen behind in terms of the HPE curriculum. It was time to implement an updated curriculum that would provide students with accurate information about their health to ensure they had the knowledge to make the best decisions about their safety.

When the revised curriculum initially rolled out in 2015, there was some backlash from local community and religious groups. Tedesco explains the media’s perception at the time:

Initially, there were few concerns relating to the release of the HPE curriculum. The media attended the news conference, reported on the facts and the news coverage was relatively positive. Articles and interviews with Minister Sandals talked about the changes that were being made to better reflect the world students faced - consent, LGBTQ issues, technology and safety. This curriculum was the most progressive in Canada when it was released in February 2015 and implementation in the classroom wouldn't happen until September. However, after that initial release, community groups across the province (largely in the GTA) started to organize. Many religious and ethnic grassroots organizations began to protest, some parents were pulling students from school (even though the curriculum wasn't being taught until the following school year) and misinformation started to spread. Media quickly picked up on this trend. Concerns were wide ranging, most based on some level of misinformation. They included teaching children about sexual health too soon, gender fluidity and gender identity. For example, in grade one, the curriculum noted that students should learn the proper names of body parts. The new curriculum added that this includes genitalia (penis, testicles, vagina and vulva). The purpose was, that after consulting with CAS and police associations, children should be able to identify body parts with the appropriate language in order to report cases of abuse, for example.”

Tedesco and Ministry of Education made a point to spend time liaising with local groups to ensure the information about the new curriculum was transparent and accessible. They ensured that the questions and concerns of parents and community members were heard.

These concerns were not easily resolved but took the dedication of the government to reach out to hear the concerns of parents and community members. Meetings took place with community leaders to hear their concerns directly and provide information. School boards worked with the ministry to create pamphlets for parents and schools held information nights to encourage parents to ask questions directly. The curriculum was translated into additional languages to ensure language would not be a barrier in understanding the facts. The Liberal government worked tirelessly to work directly with the community to address concerns.”

In situations where parents refused to grant permission for their child to be taught the updated curriculum, measures were taken to ensure these students didn't feel alienated from their classmates. Tedesco assures that student health, safety, and well-being were top priorities.

One significant addition to the policy for school boards was that appropriate accommodation would be provided for students whose parents wanted them exempt from certain HPE classes. School boards ensured that students would have a safe, friendly place to spend that class time such as another classroom or library so that they would not feel alienated or excluded.

In contrast, Ford's plan to repeal the current curriculum can be viewed as hasty and even thoughtless. Tedesco describes the current response to the repeal and advises how community members and parents can address this decision:

There has been significant pushback from parents, community groups and school boards. The updated curriculum had already been taught for two years with little or no concern once the government had worked with the communities. Parents are now organizing to protest the repeal and force government to return to the updated version. The conversation has not stopped - and the best way to continue to move forward is to call or email your MPP, send a letter to the Minister of Education and be active on social media and in the community to ensure that the message is heard. Parents can also access the curriculum online if they want to teach their children directly.”

The 1998 curriculum is especially problematic because it does not address topics like sexting or cyberbullying. New technologies pose unique risks to youth safety and sexuality, and these issues need to be discussed in Ontario schools. Tedesco explains:

Children face a very different world than any previous generation - one that is online. They need to be equipped with accurate information in a safe environment to protect their health and well-being. Learning about consent, healthy relationships, same-sex marriage, gender identity and online bullying should not be controversial and certainly not political. Turning student safety into a campaign issue, and repealing the curriculum, puts students at risk in return for political gain. Ontario is a leader in education and now, more than ever, we need to advocate for progress.

In addition to reinstating the 1998 sex education program in schools across Ontario, the Ford government has also created a teacher complaint line where concerned parents can report teachers who have decided to teach the 2015 curriculum. Ford released a statement within a recent press conference:

“We will not tolerate anybody using our children as pawns for grandstanding and political games. And, make no mistake, if we find somebody failing to do their job, we will act.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath is leading the opposition of this policy development, arguing that an inadequate sexual education curriculum puts youth health and safety at risk. Horwath has teamed up with health care professionals to protest this current change.

On August 14th, a protest was held at Queens Park to protest Ford's plan. Hundreds of elementary teachers from across Ontario marched with their unified message to "stand together for students."

Opposition to this plan is heavy and with students freshly returned to the classroom, time is of the essence to help resolve these issues. Concerned teachers and parents are waiting back to hear for an official directive from the Ministry of Education.

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