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Demonstrators gather in front of Queen’s Park to protest against Ontario’s new sex education curriculum in Toronto on Feb. 24, 2015. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)
Demonstrators gather in front of Queen’s Park to protest against Ontario’s new sex education curriculum in Toronto on Feb. 24, 2015. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

EDUCATION

New Ontario health curriculum to go ahead despite protests, Wynne says Add to ...

Premier Kathleen Wynne vowed the province’s new health and physical education curriculum will go ahead on day two of sweeping sex-ed protests throughout the GTA, with nearly 29,000 kids from many different neighbourhoods and cultural backgrounds taken out of school.

Ms. Wynne said parents who object to the curriculum can withdraw their children from certain parts of it, but parent protesters say not all schools accommodate this, and at least one superintendent is uncertain how to deal with a large number of requests to opt out.

Fewer children were absent from elementary schools on the second day of the protest, but in Toronto, the number of absentees was still more than double the number of students who were away last Tuesday. The Toronto District School Board reported 28,706 elementary student absences, down from nearly 35,000 on Monday. In the Peel Region School Board, the number also dropped: While 28,257 were missing on Monday, 19,278 were absent on Tuesday. A school board spokesperson said the average number of absent students is 10,000.

Attendance went up by about 100 on Tuesday at Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park Public School. About 90 per cent of the school’s 1,350 students were absent on Monday. That still left more than 1,000 students away.

Christina Liu of the Parents’ Alliance of Ontario returned her son to his TDSB elementary school on Tuesday after keeping him home for one day. She said while parents are upset with the planned curriculum, many kept their children home reluctantly, as “the last step.” But her group, which she says is made up of mostly Chinese parents, will continue to raise awareness about their issues with the curriculum.

“Parents came together fast because they have genuine concerns. Many of them are highly educated, trained professionals … And they read the curriculum,” she said. “They are not just reading – they also find the research surrounding the curriculum.”

Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals said the objections are not a surprise because “large numbers” of students are already being withdrawn from discussions of the current sex-ed curriculum at some schools.

“So the idea that this is new, that parents withdrawing their children from sex ed, is actually not true,” Ms. Sandals said. “Where we are seeing a lot of conversation about withdrawing kids tends to be in schools where kids were being withdrawn in the past. I am not surprised.”

Jack Fonseca, a communications and marketing specialist for an anti-abortion organization in Toronto, said he viewed the solution of opting out of the curriculum as “a lie to pacify parents to make them stop protesting.” He is keeping his five-year-old son home from his Waterloo Catholic school this week.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said while the ministry expects school boards to have guidelines for opting out, individual boards decide how to deal with the requests.

Jeff deFreitas, superintendent of curriculum and instruction support service for the Peel school board, said schools assess opt-out requests case by case, following the board’s operating procedure on religious accommodation. Parents typically meet with the school principal and their child’s teacher to find a solution, which might include an alternative assignment or modified class expectations.

He said while parents have requested that their children not participate in aspects of the curriculum relating to sex education in the past, most requests are made by small groups or individuals, and schools have never dealt with large groups of parents asking to opt out.

“At this point, we are waiting for some guidance from the ministry about how we might approach this,” Mr. deFreitas said. “We’ll see what happens, and if we need to adjust the way we currently provide for religious accommodation, then we’ll do that.”

It is not possible, Mr. deFreitas said, for parents in Peel to pull their children from discussions of topics in the curriculum protected by Ontario’s Human Rights Code. Protected grounds in the code include sexuality and gender expression.

“If you are talking about, ‘I don’t want my child being exposed to any conversations about homosexuality or sexuality or gender,’ that would be something they could not opt out of because that’s an area protected by human rights,” he said. “So that’s a challenge in this conversation.”

Mr. Fonseca said he does not accept the idea that he has to request that his children opt out of material he finds objectionable.

“Why should the onus be put on parents to opt out? Let the minority of parents who want it opt in,” Mr. Fonseca said. Among his concerns, he said, is the “undertone of sexual permissiveness.”

The new curriculum is set to be implemented in September.

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