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Hundreds of doctors, nurses and social workers are asking the Ontario government to reconsider its plan to repeal and replace a modernized sex-ed curriculum, arguing the decision would put students’ health at risk.

A petition signed by nearly 1,800 health-care workers was delivered to the provincial legislature Tuesday by NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Scrapping the sex-ed curriculum updated by the previous Liberal government in 2015 was one of the main campaign promises of Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford during the spring election. His government has said it will launch a provincewide public consultation in September on a new lesson plan. Until one is drafted, the government has asked schools to teach an older version of the curriculum that was last updated in 1998.

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Dr. Andrea Chittle, a Guelph, Ont.-based family physician representing the group, said the updated plan dealt with issues that are crucial to students’ physical and mental health.

Nearly 1,800 health-care workers have signed a petition asking the Ontario government to stop plans to scrap a modernized sex-ed curriculum. Dr. Andrea Chittle says it’s crucial for kids to learn about consent and inclusivity. The Canadian Press

“It is imperative that children learn about difference and inclusivity, consent and safety,” she said. “The human development and sexual health components of the 2015 curriculum are critically important for informed decision-making related to health behaviours and relationships.”

The updated sex-ed curriculum included warnings about online bullying and sexting, but protesters, especially social conservatives, took issue with parts of the plan that talked about same-sex marriage, gender identity and masturbation.

During the campaign, Ford accused the Liberals of introducing a sex curriculum based on ideology, saying they had turned schools into social laboratories and kids into test subjects. He promised a Tory government would replace the curriculum with a teaching plan that was “age appropriate.”

Chittle said the province had already been through a substantial delay to rewrite the curriculum in 2010 when the then-Liberal government of former premier Dalton McGuinty halted a planned update that was eventually finalized in 2015.

“We had a five year gap where students went back to the 1998 inadequate curriculum and were not being given up-to-date, comprehensive, evidence-based sexual and reproductive health information,” Chittle said. “I would posit there’s been harm from that.”

In addition to individual workers, groups including the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada and the Ontario Association of Social Workers have signed the petition.

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Horwath said the health-care workers are joining a growing list of people speaking about the controversial Tory plan. With the first day of school just weeks away, children will be hurt by the government’s decision, she said.

“If we don’t teach children an up-to-date sex-ed curriculum ... we’re putting our children’s health at risk,” she said. “We have a responsibility to give students information that can protect them from cyber bullying, infectious diseases, abuse and we have a responsibility to teach kids about healthy relations.”

Health Minister Christine Elliott said she welcomed the health-care professionals’ comments, but added parents should also have a voice.

“Parents know what’s best for their children,” she said.

In recent weeks, the Tory government has come under pressure to clarify what will be taught in classrooms this fall, initially saying it would be the 1998 curriculum before saying concepts like cyber safety, consent and gender identity would be taught. It later back-tracked, saying teachers students would be taught the 1998 curriculum.

More than two dozen school boards in the province have expressed concerns about the government’s plan, with some saying teachers will continue to discuss the issues included in the updated curriculum with their students.

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Education Minister Lisa Thompson downplayed the mixed messaging the government has sent in recent weeks, saying there should be “no confusion” about what will be taught in the classroom by teachers this fall.

“I have every confidence in teachers that they’ll prepare our students for the realities of today,” she said.

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