OPINION: Barstool fund for schools? I’ll drink to that!

OPINION: Barstool fund for schools? I’ll drink to that!

By Lorraine Connelly

During this pandemic we’ve looked for any glimmer of hope or silver lining that we could cling to. Two Wallingford restaurants, Gaetano’s Tavern on Main and Laskara Restaurant, were recent recipients of financial support to help keep them afloat during this prolonged economic downturn. As of last November, more than 600 Connecticut restaurants have either closed permanently or haven’t set a reopening date, according to Scott Dolch, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association.

Then a week before Christmas, Dave Portnoy, founder of the media company Barstool Sports, launched “The Barstool Fund,” a nonprofit for small businesses impacted by COVID-19. He contributed $500,000 of his own money toward the effort and has since raised nearly $35 million from more than 200,000 supporters to benefit 233 small businesses. For those businesses that are selected, it’s a lifeline that ensures the ability to make payroll and pay vendors. Last month, another Wallingford business, Yale Billiards, a family-owned pool and billiard hall, was notified that they, too, qualified for a grant from Barstool.

Portnoy has received a lot of media attention for being the genius behind the effort and the genie of pandemic wishes. His initiative exemplifies the American “can-do” spirit during difficult times. One wonders, though, what might be the impact if there was a similar crowdsourcing to aid the reopening of schools? Surely one of the 17 Connecticut residents who appears annually on the Forbes billionaires list could step up as an angel investor to support additional surveillance testing for public schools — the kind of testing that private schools and colleges and universities can afford, and that would bring us just one step closer toward reopening public schools safely?

Here’s the catch, though, while everyone can agree that education is the foundation of a functioning society, how it should be prioritized during a pandemic is quite a different matter. Christian Science Monitor staff writers, Sara Miller Llana and Lenora Chu, compared U.S. and European approaches to reopening schools in a recent investigative report. Their conclusion? “The decision-making around how and where American schoolchildren will spend their days has been affected by political polarization and a distrust of authorities that have made it harder to find consensus on responding to the pandemic, including education policy. A set of cultural values in the U.S. that emphasizes freedom and individual choice above all else has also undergirded decisions to open or close school.” By comparison, they note, Europe and Canada have persuaded their leaders to implore society to forego nonessential activities to help keep schools open.

Is it any surprise then that in a society such as ours — that emphasizes freedom and individual choice above all else — that the reopening of schools remains on the back burner? Derek W. Black, University of South Carolina law professor and author of “Schoolhouse Burning,” notes, “Today we talk about education as though it’s a commodity rather than a constitutional commitment,” adding, “We talk about the importance of education, but the implementation and reality of that commitment is far more difficult because the stock market and the unemployment rate rule America in a way that it doesn’t necessarily rule the rest of the world.”

In a country where decision-making has become commodified and siloed, it’s easier to rally 200,000 individuals to contribute to a fundraiser for small businesses than it is for any 200,000 individuals to come to a consensus on schools reopening during the pandemic.

I was heartened by Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona’s senate confirmation hearing last week during which he stated that, if confirmed as Secretary of Education, he will make “the increased surveillance testing for our educators and the prioritization of our educators for vaccination” a national priority.

Cardona will help re-prioritize education on the national stage while bringing the American entrepreneurial spirit to the education sector. He has previously said, “For far too long we’ve worked in silos, failing to share our breakthroughs and our successes in education. We need schools to be places of innovation, knowing that this country was built on innovation. And for far too long, the teaching profession has been kicked around and not given the respect it deserves. It shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to realize how important teachers are for this country.”

So, as we celebrate this Valentine’s holiday, let’s remember to support our local businesses, but make getting our children safely back to school our first priority. And, if we can just delay our insatiable appetites just a bit longer, we may soon be able to safely enjoy those things we miss most. Ah yes, I can almost smell the Yankee pot roast at Gaetano’s.

Lorraine Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.

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