With the start of the new school year came an added challenge for Jewish day school administrators in Toronto, some of whom have spent months working to implement the amendments to Ontario’s new health and physical education curriculum, which includes changes to how and when sexual education issues are taught.
Under the revamped curriculum, which had not been updated since 1998, Grade 1 students are expected to learn the anatomically correct names of body parts, including sexual organs. Grade 2 students will learn about basic stages of human development.
Third graders will learn how to show respect for people with visible differences, such as skin colour, body shapes and sizes, people who have different physical abilities, and invisible differences, including “gender identity, sexual orientation, family background, and personal preferences.”
In Grade 4, students will learn about bullying, both in person and online, as well as physical changes accompanying puberty and personal hygiene. In Grade 5, they’ll learn about parts of the reproductive system, and what to expect from puberty.
Sixth graders will learn more about puberty, healthy relationships, and address stereotypes and assumptions. In Grade 7, students will be taught about the risks of early pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and the concept of consent, and in Grade 8, topics including contraception, sexual intimacy, decisions about sexual activity, and discussions about gender identity and sexual orientation will be explored.
Eric Petersiel, head of school at Leo Baeck Day School, said the sexual education component is only a small part of the revamped health and physical education curriculum.
“Much of what is being taught is what we’re already teaching through a combination of our physical education program and our guidance curriculum,” Petersiel said.
“We’ve added additional time with the physical education specialist to present the health curriculum as a core part of the curriculum for every student from grades 1 to 5. For grades 6, 7 and 8, the more sensitive issues are delivered by a social worker from Jewish Family & Child and we pay to have that done so the kids can be split by gender and not have a teacher in the room and have a more open conversation about the more sensitive topics.”
Petersiel said he’s pleased with the new curriculum as a whole, because it tackles issues such as mental health and how to make positive, healthy choices in life.
“They deal with all the issues that we try to deal with, and they gave it a proper curriculum structure around self esteem, emotional development, understanding differences… So in Grade 3, there is [a lesson about] visible and invisible differences in people, and respect. These are all things, as a Jewish day school, that we take very seriously and have always made a core part of our home-base curriculum,” he said.
“It’s not about focusing on how we are going to help children create their own gender identity or their sexual orientation, it’s about how we acknowledge that people are different from each other in a myriad of ways and how those differences are actually positives to make each person unique.”
Amy Platt, director of general studies at Bialik Hebrew Day School, said the school has reviewed the new curriculum “carefully and believes that each of the expectations can be taught in an age-appropriate way and in a manner that suits the values that are integral to our school. During the course of this year, we will work with our homeroom and physical education teachers to facilitate an appropriate and measured approach” to implementing it.
Netivot HaTorah Day School’s communications director referred to a statement Rabbi Elliott Diamond, head of Jewish studies, sent to The CJN last May regarding the new curriculum.
“While our school strives to implement the ministry’s guidelines in the areas of core curriculum, we have chosen not to implement the health curriculum in its entirety. We feel that elements of the program – specifically the sex education sections – reflect a position that is not supported by our parent body and our religious perspective,” Rabbi Diamond wrote.
Although private elementary schools are not obligated to follow the provincial curriculum, private high schools are.
Renee Cohen, principal of the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy’s Kimel campus in Vaughan, said high school students are required to take one course in health and physical education to earn their Ontario Secondary School Diploma.
“Our students in their Grade 9 year at TanenbaumCHAT take healthy active living education to satisfy this Ontario Ministry of Education requirement. Many students will continue to take physical education courses throughout their four years of high school, but it’s only required as part of their Grade 9 year,” Cohen said.
“As an accredited and ministry-inspected school, TanenbaumCHAT will follow the… curriculum, and we will teach all strands of the curriculum,” she said, adding that physical education teachers at both TanenbaumCHAT campuses have worked together to revise lesson plans.
“We’ve always taught this as a health component, and a lot of what is in the new curriculum is similar to what was taught in the past.” She added she’s yet to hear from concerned parents about the new curriculum.
Rabbi Seth Grauer, head of school for Yeshivat Or Chaim, an Orthodox high school for boys, and Ulpanat Orot, its counterpart for girls, declined to comment for this story. Messages to Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School, Robbins Hebrew Academy, and Associated Hebrew Schools were not immediately returned.