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Ontario Premier Doug Ford speaks at the Associations of Municipalities Ontario conference in Ottawa, Aug. 19, 2019.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government is telling school boards they have three months to issue a policy for parents to exempt their children from human-development and sexual-education courses, as part of a new curriculum.

The provincial government unveiled a new Health and Physical Education curriculum for Grades 1 to 8 Wednesday, along with a memorandum to school boards that parents must be informed in advance when sex-ed will be taught. School boards have until the end of November to produce a policy for parents who wish to exempt their child from sex-ed.

Under the 2015 policy introduced by the former Liberal government, parents could also request that their child be exempt from some parts of the curriculum. But some school boards, such as the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and the Peel District School Board, did not allow children to be exempt from some lessons on gender identity, for example, citing human-rights concerns.

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Staff at the TDSB are reviewing the new memorandum to see what effect, if any, these new instructions from the ministry will have on the board’s policy, according to Shelley Laskin, a trustee at the school board.

“I feel very strongly as a trustee that parents should not be able to opt out about things that are actually under the human-rights code,” she said. “Maybe there’s a parent that’s uncomfortable with a topic in science or maybe they hold the belief that the world is flat, not round. We don’t tend to have those conversations, like opting out of math or opting out of geography, but it always comes up about this sexual-education component."

As school boards and educators review the new curriculum, which is 318 pages long, many contacted by The Globe and Mail on Wednesday said they were receptive to the new policy.

“We are … initially encouraged that the government has responded to public feedback that has been provided by parents, guardians, students and educators," said Michael Barrett, chair of the Durham District School Board.

The new curriculum is similar in many ways to the 2015 policy, which was criticized and then repealed by the Ford government.

An interim curriculum, introduced in 2018, was seen by many as inadequate and outdated.

The curriculum reflects much of what was in the Liberal government’s previous one, although sections on cannabis, mental health and concussions have been added. Some questioned why the government went through the process to repeal it in the first place. Opposition to the Ford government’s repeal of the 2015 curriculum included public outcry, student protests and a court challenge.

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The Official Opposition education critic, NDP MPP Marit Stiles, said the province’s students were left in limbo for a year with a 20-year-old sex-ed curriculum – for nothing.

“We are here today after Doug Ford wasted a year playing politics with our kids’ safety and well-being,” Ms. Stiles said.

Educators will have to rush to implement the new curriculum, according to Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. He said the government didn’t adequately consult with teachers before rolling out the new curriculum.

“We have not been a part of that process from day one," he said. “Our involvement was to find out on twitter [Tuesday] night that it was being released.”

The new program includes lessons on consent and sexual orientation, just like the 2015 curriculum, although some of those topics are being taught later. Gender identity and expression, for example, were formerly covered in Grade 6; now they will be taught in Grade 8. Some parents, such as Jake Somerville, think that’s too late.

“Unfortunately, that’s just going to push things further back for a lot of children that need that content earlier on,” he said. “I’m at least glad we were able to keep the LGBTQ+ content within the curriculum and not get rid of it altogether.”

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The Ministry of Education did not respond to The Globe’s request for comment as of Wednesday evening.

Families will be given three weeks notice before lessons on sex-ed are taught and will have up to five school days before the class to provide school boards with an exemption notice for their children, under the new curriculum.

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