TORONTO -- The Ontario government’s decision to include school supplies on its list of non-essential items during the pandemic is being criticized for its effect on low-income families and those living in remote areas of the province.

Last week, in an effort to redirect business to smaller retailers, the Ontario government ordered that big box and discount stores, such as Dollarama, block off “non-essential” goods to their customers as part of their latest round of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.

The rules are similar to ones that were introduced earlier in the pandemic in other provinces, such as Quebec and Manitoba.

While families can still order school supplies online or using curbside pick up from smaller retailers, critics have argued that some households don’t have access to online retail and they can’t afford to pay more for shipping or for goods that are priced higher at smaller businesses.

Theresa Pastore, the executive director of Parents Engaged in Education, a charitable organization that provides educational resources to families, said that it’s very difficult for some families to not have access to affordable supplies and activities.

“These families really can’t afford to buy online, they can’t go to the mainstays of Walmart, Costco, Staples, they can barely afford to go the dollar store,” she told CTV’s Your Morning on Friday.

“Often their kids just do without or they share a notebook with their brother and sister or things like that. And unless you've been in that situation, you really can't appreciate that spending even $2 to get a ruler for your child or something is beyond your means.”

Since January, Pastore’s organization has been running an “education bank,” which operates like a food bank but with school supplies, in Scarborough, Ont. to help families in need during the pandemic. The goods they provide to low-income families include backpacks, lunch bags, pencils, pens, pencil cases, binders, notebooks, construction paper, and stickers.

In recent weeks, Pastore said the education bank has seen a dramatic increase in demand and has helped more than 225 families.

“The need is huge,” she said. “We are getting over 200 requests a week and that’s actually servicing over 460 children a week. So it has gone from maybe 25 families a week to that increase.”

Pastore said the provincial government needs to do more to support low-income families and charities that are helping these households. She also said there should a plan in place to vaccinate volunteers who are working at organizations like hers to help families.

The Ontario government did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.