Lessons learned from sex ed curriculum changes relevant today during COVID-19


TORONTO, April 21, 2021 – Changes to health, sexual and physical education curriculums in Ontario had a dramatic effect on teachers, but those lessons are even more salient today, says York University Professor Sarah Flicker.

The lessons learned from changes to these curriculums in 2015 and 2019 are outlined in a new report, Changing the Rules: Ontario Teacher Reflections on Implementing Shifting Health and Physical Education Curricula, launching Tuesday.

Although most teachers interviewed for this report welcomed changes to the 1998 health, sex and physical education curriculum, they felt highly surveilled and stressed, and frustrated with the way the new curriculums were rolled out without adequate supports, training and resources. In the space of several years, they were asked to teach three different curriculums.

The researchers wanted to know how teachers at the frontlines of this confluence of ideological battles between governments, parents, teachers, human rights, and students were navigating this charged political environment, and what could be done differently next time.

“While we collected the data pre-COVID, in many ways I think so many of the recommendations that are coming out of this report in terms of the kind of supports that teachers need, and more supportive work environments, are even more salient today,” says Professor Sarah Flicker, York Research Chair in Community-Based Participatory Research in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.

“They’re trying to navigate teaching and learning and communicating around health and safety in this new environment, in this very changed landscape, thinking about sexuality, risk and relationships. I don’t think public health has had a moment when more of us were paying attention to things like hygiene and setting boundaries, understanding consent, and understanding the well-being of ourselves and others.”

Health and physical education teachers play an important role in helping young people think about their bodies, their well-being, making safer decisions and reducing risks, but in many ways, teachers are even more surveilled now as they Zoom in from their homes into their students’ homes, says Flicker.

The report will launch at a virtual event – Teaching Health & Physical Education in Uncertain Times – on Tuesday, April 27, from 4 to 6 pm.

The event will include a talk by Flicker on the key findings of her study, followed by Faculty of Education Professor Sarah Barrett sharing her final report, Emergency Distance Learning during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Teachers’ Perspectives, released last month. To register, visit the zoom conference registration website.

For the Changing the Rules study, Flicker and her team, including Faculty of Education Associate Professor Jen Gilbert, interviewed 34 teachers who had taught health and physical education in K-12 Ontario schools for at least five years. They hailed from 17 school boards, including public school boards, independent First Nations boards, Catholic boards, and French boards.

Almost all teachers interviewed agreed the curriculum needed updating and the proposed changes were important. They felt young people need to be able to talk about how things like cell phones and the Internet impact their lives, including sexually and romantically, and have teachers be able to discuss these issues with them as part of the curriculum. Many felt that sharing information about substance use, STIs, pregnancy, hygiene, and healthy relationships would help young people make decisions that would help them grow up to live happier or healthier lives.

Teachers said they need more resources particularly in the context of changing demographics in Ontario.

“As the province becomes more diverse, teachers need resources that reflect that diversity and help them have health and physical education conversations in ways that honour very different cultural traditions and understandings around the body and health, and well-being,” says Flicker.

Some of the suggestions for the future included changing the curriculum incrementally on a regular basis to ensure it remains relevant and responsive to the changing realities of Ontario students. Diverse stakeholders should be included in future consultations to ensure the curriculum is meeting the needs of all students and their communities. In addition, policies, templates and strategies need to be put in place to accommodate those students not participating in sex education classes. A culture of learning and support for teachers and students should be fostered.


York University is a modern, multi-campus, urban university located in Toronto, Ontario. Backed by a diverse group of students, faculty, staff, alumni and partners, we bring a uniquely global perspective to help solve societal challenges, drive positive change and prepare our students for success. York's fully bilingual Glendon Campus is home to Southern Ontario's Centre of Excellence for French Language and Bilingual Postsecondary Education. York’s campuses in Costa Rica and India offer students exceptional transnational learning opportunities and innovative programs. Together, we can make things right for our communities, our planet, and our future. 

Media Contact:

Sandra McLean, York University Media Relations, 416-272-6317, sandramc@yorku.ca