TORONTO -- For Toronto high school teacher Rachel Thomas, this year’s back-to-school shopping list included something new.

“Every year I buy supplies for my students,” she said, speaking to CTV News Toronto. “So I was stocking up on paper, that sort of stuff, and then I realized that this year my students are going to need masks.” 

Thomas says school boards are providing disposable masks to students, but she felt that was not a good enough long-term solution

“Using new, disposable masks every day is awful for the environment, and then the other part of it is the equity issue,” she says. “How are kids who can’t afford to buy either a reusable mask or multiple reusable masks going to operate in school? Are they going to be too embarrassed to ask their teacher for a new disposable mask every day? Are they going to reuse that disposable mask?” 

Thomas recognized that the issue extends beyond her own classroom and said she wanted to find a way to help. That’s when she created ‘Love Masks’ – an initiative to collect and distribute reusable masks to various schools across Toronto.

Toronto together

“I figured even if I could get 10 masks out to students in need, that’s 10 more kids who are a little bit safer,” she said. “This provides a little bit of dignity to those students to have their own cloth masks, not to wear the same mask over and over again, and then not to have to ask for a free mask daily.” 

Since she started the initiative in August, Thomas said she has seen more than 3,000 masks donated or purchased with donations. She says most have already been distributed and that there is now a waiting list to get masks to other schools. 

“It’s been overwhelming,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of small businesses step up, which has been amazing because they have been the ones that have been most affected by COVID.” 

One of the businesses assisting ‘Love Masks’ is Boa Boutique—a retail clothing store that started a ‘one for one’ campaign, where they donate a mask for every mask they sell. 

“It’s absolutely necessary,” said owner Daphne Nissani of the ‘Love Masks’ initiative. “I mean, with kids going back to school we know how it’s such a vulnerable state right now. So we were just so happy to be a part of it.”

Nissani adds that she was impressed that educators came up with ‘Love Masks,’ in addition to all the other preparations they’ve been doing for back to class. 

Toronto together

“It was so nice to see a group of teachers, like Rachel, get together and voluntarily put this organization together pretty quickly,” Nissani says. “We’ve been saying from the beginning we’re ‘all in this together’ and I don’t think that stops just because we’re half way through a pandemic or sixmonths into it. We all have to make these contributions.” 

In addition to her teaching duties, Thomas says she is working to distribute the masks as quickly as she can, and to hot-spot areas in Toronto first. 

“Even though I’ve gotten 3,000 masks, I’ve only been able to serve three per cent of the public schools in Toronto,” she tells CTV News Toronto. “I want to hit those 97 per cent of other schools.”

Thomas says she hopes the donations continue to come in after the kids are all back in school, because like winter mittens and hats, students are sure to lose or misplace their masks over time. She hopes the program brings comfort and a sense of security to families in need, during what is an uncomfortable time for students and teachers alike. 

“Honestly, this is the biggest challenge of my career,” she tells CTV News Toronto. “During all of COVID I’ve felt so helpless. We’ve just had so many obstacles, so if I can just alleviate one, I’ll feel like I’m contributing a little bit.”

Love Masks is looking for monetary donations, mask-makers and volunteers. You can find out more about how to help on their website.