A Toronto elementary school is offering a "sanitized" version of Ontario's sex-ed curriculum as a way to stop parents who oppose the lessons from pulling their kids from class.
Thorncliffe Park Public School will teach Grade 1 students about "private body parts" without going into specifics about proper names for genitalia.
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) said the change is minor and that hundreds of students were missing class due to opposition to the curriculum from religious groups. That pushback prompted the school to offer a "sanitized version" as an option.
Accommodating religious beliefs
About 40 per cent of the students in the school's Grade 1 class were placed in the alternate version of the course by parents. The alternate version was offered by the school to accommodate religious beliefs of certain families.
The school found itself at the centre of a controversy last September when hundreds of parents protested and pulled their children from class because they felt the curriculum wasn't appropriate for young children.
The Thorncliffe community has a large immigrant population, including many parents with strong conservative or faith-based backgrounds who have been very critical of the province's plan.
A statement from the Education Ministry said they want to see kids in class and learning.
"We value the full range of diversity among our students and aim to create safe, inclusive and accepting school environments that support the achievement and well-being of all students," said Nicole McInerney, a spokesperson for Education Minister Liz Sandals.
"It is important that students are in class so that they are able to learn about all subjects in the curriculum, including English, math, science and health and physical education."
McInerney also said special accommodation for parents would depend on the board and its policies.
"If parents wish to discuss possible accommodation, including exemptions, it is our expectation that these requests be considered on a case-by-case basis within the board's existing polices and that reasonable alternative activities be offered," she said.
Ryan Bird, spokesman for TDSB, also said religious accommodations are considered on a case-by-case basis.
As for other changes to the curriculum, particularly within the older grades, Bird said the requests for those will be considered individually.
Human rights issues
A parent who believes part of the curriculum doesn't align with their religious beliefs can ask to be accommodated and for their child's education to be altered, said Bird. The board will consider the request and accommodate it if the change still meets ministry expectations. Despite this, he said the curriculum will not be changed in any significant way.
"There are a number of things we won't provide accommodations on, human rights issues such as same-sex relations for example. We're not going to budge on that," he explained.
In the case of Grade 1 students not learning proper names for genitalia, the ministry expectations were met because, according to Bird, the change in terminology is minor.
Concerns about 'watered-down' sex-ed curriculum
But according to one sex-ed expert, even those changes are concerning.
"We need to be very cautious about the concept of a watered-down curriculum for some kids while others are receiving the regular curriculum," said Alex McKay, executive director at the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECC).
McKay said it's important for children to be able to name all body parts, including genitals.
"We certainly teach kids that this is their nose, elbow … toes," McKay said. "But when we say we're not going to teach you specific names of your genitals, that sends a message that that's something you don't talk about and it may lead to what we call a shame-based approach to sexuality and that's not conducive to promoting good health."
The curriculum has also been criticized by several MPPs as well as parents who don't necessarily have religious concerns but still feel that it introduces certain topics too early.
The group Parents Alliance of Ontario also criticized the program in September, saying it has some age-inappropriate material and factual errors, and that the government did not properly consult with parents.
Prior to the update the curriculum had not been updated since 1998 and did not address issues faced by today's students, such as sexting and online bullying.
The re-introduced sex-ed curriculum teaches children about homosexuality and same-sex marriages in Grade 3, encourages discussions about puberty, including masturbation, in Grade 6, and includes talk about preventing sexually transmitted diseases in Grade 7, which could include information on oral and anal sex.
"So far they have sent stuff home so we can see what they are teaching," said Aamir Siddiqui, whose daughter attends Thorncliffe Park. "[But] they need to be more transparent with the parents. We would like to have a dialogue process."