Teachers say they’ll find a way to keep Ontario’s updated sex-ed curriculum alive

Many insist they have the discretion to talk about issues like gender identity and sexual orientation when they come up

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In 2010, after a two-year consultation process, then-premier Dalton McGuinty attempted to revamp Ontario’s health and physical education curriculum for the first time since 1998. The older version waited until Grade 8 to teach students the “consequences of engaging in sexual activities.” But McGuinty’s changes were met with fierce opposition from religious and conservative groups.

As a result of the push-back, his government was forced to launch a temporary, watered-down curriculum. And for the first time ever, the words “sexual orientation,” “homophobia” and “gender identity” made an appearance, if only in the glossary. Finally, in 2015, Ontario, under Kathleen Wynne, unveiled an updated sex-ed curriculum that taught students consent in the first grade, while delving into topics like homophobia and the modern-day differences in family structures. The revisions came after nearly a decade of consultation.

In less than a month in office, Doug Ford has changed that—announcing this week that Ontario public schools will revert for now to the 1998 curriculum, a 42-page document that refers to the Internet as the “World Wide Web,” conjuring an era when social media and cyber-bullying were unknown to most parents.

Going back in time has drawn concern from educators. Many consider it a disservice to students, and some are saying they will continue teaching the 2015 curriculum. There may be little to stop them. Heather Gardner, a health and phys-ed teacher at a Hamilton-area school, says teachers will find ways to make the curriculum relevant, regardless of what the ministry of education’s document reads. “A great teacher will meet the needs of their students,” she says.

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Gardner has been a teacher for 13 years and has taught Grades 6, 7 and 8. She acknowledges that teachers will be obliged to implement the new curriculum come September; but more so than two decades ago, there are ways to make the material relevant to students. Teachers, she explains, will be able to have discussions in the classroom about current events happening in their communities, or issues arising from their use of social media, which will serve as opportunities to introduce ideas from the 2015 curriculum. “It’s about having valuable conversations with students that they might need in a way that’s relevant to them,” she says.

It’s not a loophole so much as latitude for teachers to advance what they view as relevant and useful information. In a statement, Olivia Yu, a communications officer for the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT), the regulatory body for the profession, said educators have flexibility when it comes to implementing the provincial curriculum. If a teacher flat-out refuses to deliver the required program to students, the responsibility is on the employer—in this case, the school board—to report the person to the OCT. Parents, too, can file complaints with the college.

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Gardner, for one, has doubts that teachers will be penalized for not following the 1998 document to the letter, noting that if students ask about the concept of consent, she’ll take it as a teaching moment. “If you think about the life of a principal, they have so much going on,” she says. “Are they really going to go into the classroom and make sure you’re using this little archaic document that nobody thinks is good for students?”

The language of the 1998 curriculum does provide leeway for educators to introduce material from the 2015 version. Lost in controversy surrounding the Wynne government’s requirement that Grade 1 teachers teach the proper names of genitalia, for example, was the fact that the 1998 precursor already called for first graders to learn “major body parts by their proper names;” it just didn’t specify which parts.

Sam Hammond, the president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), said in a statement that teachers can use their “professional judgement” when delivering the 1998 curriculum and “what things they may explore with students above and beyond” the old document. “ETFO will need to review the situation as to how teachers can deliver the old curriculum while still protecting the safety of students,” he said.

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Ford’s government plans to hold its own consultations to improve the 1998 curriculum. ETFO, which endorsed Andrea Horwath and the NDP in the recent provincial election, are opposing this revision. Hammond has said “given the amount of input teachers, experts and parents had” in the 2015 update, “any new consultations are likely to give a similar result.”

After all, Gardner insists, these are people that know what’s right for their students. She says she’s come across pregnant students during her time as a teacher and believes children need the knowledge found in the 2015 curriculum. “For us as teachers to not be talking about consent, emotional safety, relationships and social skills,” she says, “would not be doing our students justice.”