Toronto teacher Rachel Thomas holds a bin full of Love Masks, masks that will be provided to students who need them when they return to school this month. Photo courtesy Rachel Thomas
  • September 2, 2020

Back to school shopping looks a bit different this year and a Toronto high school teacher wants to make sure every student in the GTA has what they need to stay safe in a time of pandemic.

Love Masks, an initiative begun by Rachel Thomas of St. John Paul II Catholic Secondary School in Scarborough, Ont., has been distributing donated face masks to community organizations, schools and families in need. With many parents struggling financially due to COVID-19, Thomas says no one should have the added stress of providing personal protective equipment (PPE) for their children.

“Every year I buy supplies for my students, usually pencils and paper, and I realized this year kids are going to need masks,” said Thomas, who teaches history, geography and special education. “We have lower-income families at our school and I realized it’s not just my students who need masks but kids all across the GTA and the province. I thought if I even got 10 masks to give away at least that would be something, but it’s taken off to be much more than that.”

The Toronto Catholic District School Board requires students in all grades to wear a non-medical cloth mask or face covering while indoor on school property as part of its re-opening plan.

Through partnerships with local shelters, churches and other organizations, Thomas has been able to get masks into the hands of high school students who need them most.

Donations of unworn masks are placed in designated drop box locations around the city where they are picked up by Thomas and distributed to individual families and organizations. With financial donations also being made through the Love Masks website, Thomas has been able to purchase masks in bulk at discount. Partner businesses include convenience stores and clothing stores, some of which have even cut out the middle step and started distributing masks directly to youth in need.

While schools will make disposable masks accessible to students and staff daily, Thomas is concerned about the environmental impact, safety concerns around the possible reusing of masks if students feel uncomfortable asking for a new one daily and the social stigma that might come with wearing a school-provided face covering.

“I think a lot of kids will want to wear a cloth mask in a colour they like just to blend in with their peers,” Thomas said.

Within the first two weeks of launching in late August, Thomas was able to purchase over 500 masks and with the help of her husband Kurtis Mandrozos, who also teaches at Pope John Paul II, has packaged and delivered more than half of those. The initiative has also received support from other staff at the school.

“Rachel is an amazing person and an amazing teacher and somebody who’s always looking out for others, which I think comes from her background working in special education,” said John Paul II principal Michael Wetzel. “She’s always looking out for the underdog and trying to figure out the best way to even the playing field.”

Thomas and Mandrozos have been a couple since attending Pope John Paul II as teenagers and continue to share a special connection to the school and community. They’ve had a lot on their plate juggling the Love Masks initiative along with other back-to-school preparations and caring for their two infant children.

After being on maternity leave this past year, Thomas says she’s excited to get back into the classroom hopes to see the initiative continue to grow through volunteer support and donations.

“I think as educators our priority is that our kids need to be educated, socialized and they need to have a routine and normalcy again,” said Thomas. “I’m happy to be of service.”

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