One week away from the start of a new school year, and tension has once again flared up around Ontario's sex-ed curriculum.
The new curriculum, which took effect last September, prompted large protests from angry parents last year, hundreds of whom pulled their children from class in opposition. Now, the dispute has moved back into the political arena, after Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown announced, in a letter distributed in a Toronto riding ahead of a byelection, that if elected, his government would scrap the changes implemented by the Liberals and "develop a new curriculum after thoughtful and full consultation with parents." Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, in an interview with CBC News, called that promise "very, very dangerous." The new sex-ed curriculum, introduced in the 2015-2016 school year by Wynne's Liberal Party of Ontario, included several changes such as calling body parts by their actual names as early as Grade 1, discussing gender identity and masturbation in Grade 6, and, in Grade 7, teaching how to avoid sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. This was the first change to the province's sex-ed curriculum since 1998, meaning it was the oldest in the country prior to the revisions. Experts have said these changes now make the province's curriculum the most progressive in Canada. The PCs opposed the curriculum, initially announced in February 2015, which also saw persistent condemnation from anti-abortion groups, and religious organizations. In June, Brown said he wouldn't repeal the curriculum if elected, but would instead push for an update. READ MORE: We Spoke to the Leader of Ontario's Conservative Party to Talk Pride, Abortion Access, and Sex Ed The letter distributed by Brown didn't note what exactly to change about the legislation. Instead, Brown wrote, "I believe sex-ed is important, but it cannot be significantly changed without extensively consulting the primary educators of children, who have always been parents." On Saturday, speaking with CBC News, Brown backtracked, saying the letter was just intended for use in the by-election. Instead, he says he is committed to "making sure that in the next curriculum, that we would engage parents and that parents would be given a voice." Wynne, however, says this has already happened. "It's been consulted on with parents, with educators, with social workers, police, health care workers—it's a very important development," she said. The legislation may have been responsible for hundreds of parents deciding to pull their children from public schools thus far. The Toronto District School Board predicted that enrollment for the 2015-2016 school year would increase by around 300 students; instead, it dropped by 2083 students, spokesperson Ryan Bird told CBC News in May. This means the prediction was off by 1.4 percent, an unusually high number for the school board with over 250,000 students. The schools with the greatest rate of absences were located in areas with especially vocal opposition to the plan. In May, Gerri Geron, a trustee for one of the TDSB's wards, told Metro Morning, "we don't know exactly why the drop has occurred," as the school board doesn't track reasons for students pulling out. Bird told VICE News, however, that numbers at schools most heavily affected have since largely returned to normal, though he was unable to provide any concrete numbers. Past protests against the curriculum have enjoyed widespread support. A call for a week-long student strike against schools in May 2015 saw thousands fail to show up for class, with one school reporting that nearly 90 percent of its students were absent. The absence rate for the overall TDSB attendance rose by 144 percent from the week prior. In September 2015, only half of nearly 1500 students at Thorncliffe Park Public School, located in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Toronto, attended class on the first day of the year. Protests have since died down, but they may start anew with the approaching school year. The Campaign Life Coalition, a national pro-life organization, is holding a protest against the curriculum on September 21, with a poster claiming it is "age-inappropriate, too explicit and sexualizes children as young as six." Follow Davide Mastracci on Twitter.