Changes could be coming to sexual health education in Alberta. Here’s what we know

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Late last month, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith announced a sweeping array of proposed changes that would affect transgender and non-binary youth.

Among those proposals is one that affects almost all 766,000 Kindergarten to Grade 12 students in Alberta.

Smith wants parents to opt students in to every lesson about sex education, sexual orientation or gender identity. The law right now requires one notification, and parents can opt out.

So what’s the current situation in Alberta?

Alberta’s Education Act requires school staff to give parents and guardians advance warning when a lesson, instructional material or exercise will deal “primarily and explicitly” with human sexuality or religion.

The former Progressive Conservative government gave parents and guardians the ability to opt children out of sex education and religion lessons in 2009.

Many other provinces allow parents to withdraw their children from such lessons.

A CBC News review of other provinces’ policies found no other jurisdiction using an opt-in model. 

The lessons are either mandatory, or parents and guardians must contact the school to remove the student. In B.C. and Manitoba, parents are responsible for ensuring students learn the material in another setting, such as at home or from a counsellor. 

New Brunswick is considering giving parents the ability to remove students from sexual health lessons, by either an opt-in or opt-out model.

What is taught in Alberta schools? 

Lessons on consent start in Grade 1 in Alberta. Sexual health education addresses puberty changes in Grade 4, and dives into reproduction and birth control by Grade 6.

In junior high, students learn about body image, social influence, sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections and their prevention, the influence of alcohol and safer sex.

The mandatory high-school class, Career and Life Management, covers relationships, values, decision-making, consent, pregnancy options and more.

What are the proposed changes?

The plan is to make lessons on sexual health, and sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) opt-in and will require school staff to assume all students are excluded until they hear otherwise.

Also in policies announced Jan. 31, Smith said all third-party presenters and resources related to sexual health or SOGI “must be pre-approved by the Ministry of Education to ensure they are age-appropriate.”

Smith said legislation to introduce these changes, as well as rules around changing students’ pronouns and names in schools and limiting children’s access to gender-affirming health care, will come this fall.

What we don’t know

In response to a list of 20 questions about how the new policies would work, the timeline to approve resources, how the government defines SOGI lessons, and what the consequences would be for breaking the rules, Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides’ office sent a short response:

“Policy implementation will require consultation and feedback from various stakeholders. Over the next few months, I will be engaging on how to implement these policies to best support students. I’ve already had discussions with the Minister’s Youth Council last weekend, many school boards across the province, the ATA, and other education partners. More information will be shared when it is available.”

How are people reacting?

Advocates for comprehensive sexual health education in schools say the Alberta government’s incoming new approach will exclude more students from lessons crucial to their safety.

“There are going to be many, many students who are going to fall through the cracks … because a piece of paper that got buried in a peanut butter and jam sandwich in the bottom of the backpack did not get taken out and get signed,” said Mary Jane James, CEO of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton.

Jeff Park, who has four children, was hoping for such changes. He’s executive director of the Alberta Parents’ Union, a Calgary-based subsidiary of a right-leaning think tank The Alberta Institute.

“There were gaps in the existing system of parental notification,” Park said.

He said parents told him their children said SOGI topics were covered during school assemblies or visits to the library, which are not considered formal instruction. He said school staff were exploiting “loopholes” in the law.

Although he acknowledged it is bureaucratic, Park said requiring government approval of material and presentations will give parents comfort that they’re appropriate.

An online Leger survey of 1,002 Albertans in early February suggests 37 per cent of respondents said parents should be notified and opt children in to human sexuality and SOGI lessons. 

There were 27 per cent of respondents who said parents should receive notice, but shouldn’t have to be opting children in. The survey suggested another 23 per cent thought the lessons should go ahead without parental notice or permission.

Requiring permission from every student’s parent or guardian to participate in every lesson will be a huge bureaucratic burden, said Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

With a lack of clarity about what constitutes a SOGI lesson, Schilling said the new rules will place a “chill” on teachers including mentions of 2SLGBTQ+ people in lessons, he said.

He questions how long it will take the government to review and approve every resource and presentation, and how that will affect students’ access to high-quality materials and experts.

Organizations that give presentations in schools say they don’t yet know how the new provincial vetting rules will affect them, or how it could change what subjects they’re allowed to cover. They say school boards already approve these presentations.

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