It may have been back to school for many students this week, but some Ontario classrooms were a little emptier than usual.

The dispute between the Ontario Ministry of Education and parents over the new sex-education curriculum is keeping some students out of class, and teachers and principals are caught in the middle.

About half of Toronto's Thorncliffe Park Public school's students sat at desks in their classrooms on Tuesday morning. Meanwhile, roughly half of their classmates remained home as their parents protest a controversial new sex-ed curriculum.

Most of the disputed parts of Ontario's revised health and physical education curriculum — like Grade 1 students correctly identifying genitalia or  Grade 8 students learning about gender identity and sexual orientation — make up only a handful of lessons.

Still, numerous concerned parents have formed coalitions and some have threatened to remove their children from school permanently.

Some want the government to revert to its previous 1998 curriculum, which experts deem outdated; while others say they could accept a new version if certain aspects are omitted and others tweaked.

"We're not even against sex ed in schools," says John Himanen, the director of communications for Parents Alliance of Ontario. "I'm all for it, actually. But I want it to be done right."

Sex education, Ontario protests

People who support Ontario's new sex education curriculum have held demonstrations of their own, including this February rally at Queen's Park in Toronto. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

The alliance argues the revised curriculum has some age-inappropriate material and factual errors, and says the government did not properly consult with parents.

Himanen has three daughters at a Markham elementary school. He hopes Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and the province's Minister of Education Liz Sandals will work with parents to adjust the curriculum. At the very least, he and his wife plan to meet with their daughters' teachers to learn how they intend to deliver the material before deciding if their daughters need to miss any of those lessons.

If none of these strategies work, he's willing to consider alternatives, like home or private school — similar to tactics other opponents have suggested and even used.

Belief-based exemptions possible

This conflict could create a logistical nightmare for Ontario schools. They are obligated to teach students about the birds and the bees, but want to avoid a mass student exodus as part of a prolonged protest or on the days teachers devote class time to sex education.

In many Ontario schools, parents can request special treatment for religious or personal convictions, including missing class for holidays. Parents can also make a request to the school that their child miss certain parts of the new sex-ed curriculum, wrote Gary Wheeler, the Ontario Ministry of Education's senior media relations co-ordinator.

The ministry has instructed boards to "respectfully and sensitively" deal with parental concerns, he said.

"School boards are expected to consider requests for accommodation on a case-by-case basis within the board's existing policies."

We cannot — we will not — by action or inaction endorse discrimination. - Tony Pontes, PDSB director of education

Wheeler did not say whether the ministry provides boards with guidance with regard to shaping those policies. However, Peel District School Board (PDSB) asked the ministry for clarification on the opt out process and "they are not providing it," wrote the board's director of communications and community relations Brian Woodland in an email.

Some school administrators have expressed concern that many parents in their communities will request permission for their kids to miss sex-ed classes, which could pose problems in terms of supervision.

In Halton District School Board (HDSB), most schools reported few absences during parent protests in the spring, according to the district's superintendent of education, Patricia Dyson. But a handful of larger schools had more than 100 students absent, she said.

Human rights and religious beliefs

Applications for exemptions could also create administrative overhead and friction between parents and school officials. Generally, schools require parents to write a letter to the principal and then attend a meeting before administrators determine if a student can miss the class without penalty.

Certain boards have already decided they will not allow students to opt out of classes that focus on inclusion and anti-discrimination.

The PDSB won't grant accommodation requests for class work about inclusion and any of the 11 grounds that are protected from discrimination by the Canadian Human Rights Act.

"We cannot — we will not — by action or inaction endorse discrimination," wrote Tony Pontes, the district's director of education, in a letter sent home to parents on the first day of school.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) won't entertain any requests to have student miss classes about sexual orientation, gender identity or similar topics, said the district's spokesman Ryan Bird. 

Quebec's no-exemption policy

Ontario is not the only province changing its approach to sex education. This academic year, Quebec started a pilot project under which roughly 8,200 students in about 15 schools will have mandatory sex-ed — but it won't allow exemptions. 

The course material will help students value gender equality and respect differences, as well as prevent relationship violence and unwanted pregnancies, wrote Pascal Ouellet, the Quebec Ministry of Education's media relations manager, in an email.

"In this context, we have no provisions for any exemptions," Ouellet wrote.

The project is scheduled to last two years and could be extended to all schools in the province in 2017-18.

Currently, the Ontario Ministry of Education is not considering a similar move, said spokesman Wheeler.

Few penalties for absences

Even if schools implement a no-exemption rule or refuse exemptions for subject matter protected by the human rights code, parents can still choose to keep kids home. The consequences of missing a class without an official accommodation are vague or non-existent.

Toronto Thorncliffe Park protest

Hundreds of parents protested outside Toronto's Thorncliffe Park Public School to express their opposition to Ontario's new sex-ed curriculum. (CBC)

"It is a handful of classes," wrote PDSB's Woodland when asked if parents or students would face any consequences. "Not an issue."

The TDSB seems to take a tougher, if more vague, stance. Students would be responsible for making up any missed work, says spokesman Bird.

He did not elaborate on how that would be possible if the work itself is part of what the student's parents don't want their child exposed to.

The HDSB's site explains that it may be difficult for students to "achieve a mark they are happy with" if they miss classes. District superintendant Dyson said, "students are expected to attend class."

Combating misinformation

A few days into the new school year, the general hope seems to be that Ontario schools will be able to win over most parents who currently oppose the new curriculum by clearing up misconceptions.

The PDSB has created numerous documents debunking some widespread myths, for example, such as rumours that Grade 1 students will be exposed to graphic flash cards and children will be encouraged to engage in sexual or homosexual activity.

The district's elementary schools won't teach the health sexuality components until spring "to provide time for parents to build an understanding of the curriculum," according to a letter sent home to parents.

The TDSB is also encouraging parents to seek out factual information from the Ontario Ministry of Education's website before making any decisions about keeping their children out of school.

The HDSB has also made documents and information sessions, including a recorded webcast, widely available to soften parental concerns, which Dyson says are usually about the prompts and examples in the curriculum and not the subject matter.

But she acknowledges that won't always work.

"At the end of the day, the parent will have to make a choice."

With files from the Canadian Press