From pencils and pens to new clothes and backpacks, the back-to-school list can be expensive. And now, due to COVID-19, one more thing has been added to that list: masks.
The Toronto District School Board recently approved a motion to require that all students and staff wear masks or face coverings. The Toronto Catholic District School Board has announced the same.
So, knowing the new personal protective equipment (PPE) requirement might be a burden for many families, one Toronto teacher decided to help.
"I know that we have lots of students whose families can't afford to have enough masks to wear them safely," said Rachel Thomas, who teaches history, geography and special education at St John Paul II Catholic Secondary School in Scarborough.
"You wouldn't send a kid to school with one or two shirts to last them the entire school year."
That's why Thomas, along with a group of other teachers from her school, launched Love Masks last week, an initiative that takes new, donated masks and distributes them to schools, community organizations or directly to families in need.
"COVID disproportionately is affecting our lower-income communities," she said.
How it works
People can donate hand-made or store-bought masks at designated locations, which are listed on the website. They will be given to both elementary and high school students.
Families in need and school staff will then pick up masks at those spots, or reach out to organizers to have the masks delivered.
Since August 19, the day the initiative was officially launched, Thomas said she has been able to purchase 165 masks thanks to donations.
But what about free masks supplied by school boards?
Public and Catholic schools boards in Toronto say they will be providing free ones, but Thomas says it likely won't be enough.
"Masks are going to be the new lost mitten or lost pencil this year," she said, adding that she personally knows many families who are already struggling financially.
Not only that, but Thomas said students might feel undignified if they are forced to wear free masks day after day.
"This initiative gives kids the dignity of picking their own masks and blending in with their classmates."
Zahra Dahnani owns Old's Cool General Store in East York, one of the recently-designated drop-off locations.
She says the initiative is about more than just about masks — it's about equity.
"It tackles something that most people don't even think about, that part of COVID safety is equity," Dahnani said.
"All children deserve an education — a safe education."
Alysse Rich agrees.
"We know back to school can be inequitable," she told CBC Toronto Sunday.
Rich volunteers at the Bethany Baptist Church food bank in Toronto's east end, which will be helping to distribute masks.
Knowing the impact COVID-19 has had on members of her community is what drove her to the cause.
"The numbers have tripled at our food bank location and, in large part, that's big families," Rich said.
"If you have multiple children, the number of masks is overwhelming."
Now Thomas, along with the help of other volunteers, organizers, and businesses, are working to get as many masks out before school starts.
"I don't want the safety of children — with parents having to buy masks — be another hurdle for lower-income families," Thomas said.