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Ontario reverts to an outdated sex-ed curriculum as the Canadian province shifts to the right

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TORONTO — In elementary schools across Ontario this week, the first day of school was filled with the usual mix of nervousness and excitement for young students. But many teachers had back-to-school jitters themselves thanks to a recent announcement from the new provincial government.

In July, the center-right government of Premier Doug Ford said it was scrapping the sex-education curriculum updated in 2015 and replacing it with a version from 1998, when same-sex marriage was not yet legal in Canada and social media and cyberbullying were unknown to most parents. It also set up what critics are calling a “snitch line” that allows parents to anonymously report teachers for not teaching the old version.

The decision, which fulfilled one of Ford’s campaign promises, was the latest in a series of changes made since he was sworn in as premier in late June. He has quashed the province’s carbon-pricing policy, clashed with the federal government over asylum seekers, halved the number of city councilors in Toronto and scrapped a basic-income pilot project.

Like many of those decisions, the sex-education switch has left officials scrambling, spawned a barrage of legal challenges and provoked public backlash.

“If you take the 1998 curriculum at face value, it’s outrageously out of date,” said Lauren Bialystok, a professor in social justice education at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. The rollback, she added, would put the health and safety of children at risk and lead them to adopt “dangerous conceptions of sexuality, consent and body image.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, comprehensive sex-education programs “have been shown to reduce high risk behavior, a clear factor for sexual violence victimization and perpetration.”

The 2015 curriculum, welcomed by educators as a long-overdue update, included new topics such as same-sex relationships, masturbation, gender identity, consent and the dangers of sexting. It was also controversial at the time, particularly among some religious groups and socially conservative organizations, which felt that some of its topics were age-inappropriate and best left to parents to address. Opponents staged protests carrying signs reading “My Child, My Choice,” and thousands of students were kept home from school by their parents as a show of opposition.

Bialystok said the tempest mostly petered out as parents spoke with teachers who busted many of the myths propagated at the time about the 2015 curriculum, such as that it taught students how to perform various sex acts. In an academic survey she did of teachers last year, the overwhelming majority said they supported the update.

“Now they’re in effect being muzzled,” she said, noting that while some school boards have said they will support teachers who wish to teach topics from the newer curriculum, others have not, leaving teachers in a difficult position.

Ford has not elaborated on what it is about the 2015 curriculum that he opposes, saying only that he believes it was not subjected to enough consultation.

Anna, an eighth-grade teacher in Toronto, said she will embed material from the 2015 curriculum into lesson plans for subjects other than health. She plans to show students clips of Hulu's “The Handmaid’s Tale” and have them read Judy Blume’s “Deenie.” She spoke on the condition that only her first name be used because of concerns that she could lose her job.

Yeliz Sherifali, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade health in Waterloo, Ontario, said that she has received an outpouring of support from parents who are backing her decision to continue teaching topics such as gender identity and online safety in her classes.

Not teaching them, she said, amounts to a “real disservice” to her students, who are well aware of the controversy over the rollback and asking questions about it.

“I hear a lot of people say, ‘If we don’t talk about it in health, students will be exposed to it in literature class,’ but if it’s okay to be taught in literature, why isn’t it okay to be taught in health?” she said.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson said her ministry would launch consultations for a new curriculum that might be introduced in 2019.

In the meantime, the Ford government will be fighting several legal battles over the curriculum rollback.

Both the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the province’s largest teachers union have filed injunctions in a bid to stop the government from replacing the 2015 curriculum and to cancel the “snitch line.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that "The Handmaid's Tale" is aired by HBO.

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