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Photo Courtesy Debra Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald poses for a head shot.

Debra Stevens Fitzgerald

November 1, 2020

Q: Why are you running for the school board?

A: There are a lot of things that I wanted to do when I ran the first time four years ago, and some of them I thought we were a lot closer to in January than we are now, in particular, getting the HHS overcrowding situation resolved with the second high school. I was chair last year, and I was chair the year before. I was the one who signed the contract in December after the city council approved funding for the second high school. I set the groundbreaking, gave a speech, [and] did the shovel-in-the-ground thing; it was exhilarating after so much work. I would like to get that back on track, and I would like to do what I thought we would be doing this year, which would be figuring out the programming for HHS one and HHS two. It didn’t get finished, and I want to finish. That was the big reason I ran in the first place, and that’s definitely one step forward [and] hopefully one step back. The second thing is that with COVID, I would like to figure out ways to get everybody back safely. I’m talking about the littlest of little ones pre-K and K, all the way up to HHS, [granted] is going to be the most challenging thing for us to do over the next year than anything. [HHS] was crowded; it was crazy. [HHS] got so crowded, before COVID, and to think about following CDC guidelines and trying to keep everybody safe in that building. That is going to be so very difficult, and I want to be a part of helping that, in part because [of] my job right now. I want to say I’m the only one on the school board right now who has this experience. I teach at Blue Ridge Community College and adjunct at EMU. I am dealing with a lot of what your teachers are doing right now. I am doing in-class, hyflex, which is teaching to people in front of me and people on Zoom at the same time and I’m doing synchronous distance and asynchronous distance. So I think it’s a really good thing to have a person who is doing what your teachers are doing on the board and knows from personal experience what it’s like to talk with students, to try to help students learn and to work with students in this particular environment. Nick Swayne is a school board member who’s also a teacher right now. I don’t think he’s doing what I’m doing. I don’t think he’s physically in a classroom teaching. I don’t think he’s doing synchronous distance and everything because [he’s] doing asynchronous distance. This is so hard. I’ve had students in Zoom office hours that have been in tears, and this is just so hard, and I know it’s hard for me. 

Q: What are your plans for HHS two? 

A: As of right now, a big thing to do is to get back on track. We pressed pause on the contract, and we have till next May to press play again. So that’s going to be a conversation between school board members, the city and the contractors to figure out how to restart. That project, again, it is hard to know what COVID will have done to the construction process [and] what [happened when] leaving the site untouched for some period of time will do to the plans. It’s hard to know what it’s going to do to the timetable. While we have to figure all that out, we still have students, for the next year, two years, three years, four years going to classes in a high school that remains vastly overcrowded. The first thing [I want to do is] that. The second thing, well, I’m teaching economics; and I know that parents being able to send kids to school is important for parents being able to go to work. I know that opening up the whole school system is hugely important. It’s [important] for students for a whole bunch of reasons that we all know,[and] it’s important for the local economy. If the local economy does better, we could get HHS two back.

Q: Do you support HHS two?

A: I signed the contract, [and I was] chair for the two years we negotiated it so absolutely.

Q: What are some important aspects of your job as a school board member?

A: The thing that surprised me most when I became a school board member was understanding the lane of a school board member. I had, in some way I think, expected it to be a little bit more hands on with the day to day operations. The one thing that became pretty clear early on was that the school board does policy, and they do oversight. We hire really good people to run the schools. We hired the superintendent, and then the superintendent hires administrators and principals and all the rest of that, so our job is not to micromanage. Our job is to hire really, really good people and help set the big direction for where policy goes. I think that’s the most important thing. I should not be calling a principal. I should not be calling the teacher. Students should be talking to me only to help them figure out where in the organization they should go to get their problem solved. There is a tendency for some board members to think that they are the problem solver when that’s not the case. Those are the folks that we hire.

Q: What are the main things that you want to solve in your next term as a school board member?

A: [I want to] get everybody back to school in a safe way as quickly as we can, and that doesn’t mean that I want people back to school tomorrow. Maybe November, maybe December, but just to get everybody back that [is] the top priority. [We want to] get everybody back in the buildings because the loss to students in high school all the way down to the young ones is just accumulating day by day. That’s the first thing. Second thing, [I want to] finish the school system strategic plan, which includes the high school. [I want to] get that back on track. We should have voted on that in June but couldn’t. Everything has been coded. It feels like we should have voted on that in June. [I want to] start that up again and start up the high school along with it. The last thing [I want to do] is engage in the community conversation that we’ve been promising about the memorandum of understanding between the city school system and the community. [I want to engage with] the students, of course; they’re obviously part of the community, but that’s such an important part for this particular thing that it’s worth seeing separately. I was the chair when the Parkland shooting happened, and I was in that seat when the community pressure was [for a greater] security presence in the school buildings. I even got some letters back then saying that we should have an armed presence at every door, every main door. Folks were interested in a whole bunch of stuff that now, the community pressure is the exact opposite direction. There is something in the middle there that we have [to] talk about, and that’s what I would like to do. We haven’t had school shootings in the United States this year, but that’s because schools have been largely closed. I do not pretend to be a pretty optimistic person. I do not pretend that those things have gone away. When schools reopen and attendance is more normalized, I don’t expect [school shootings] to return, but I don’t expect them not to return either. I mean, I know that that’s something that’s still present out there in society. So, I think our community needs to have a conversation that reflects both the concerns and fears that I heard back right after the Parkland shooting, and the concerns and fears and worries that people have been expressing all throughout the summer and fall, about the role [of police in schools], we have a memorandum of understanding with the police. We have committed ourselves to talking with the community about what should be in that memorandum, those are the three big things.

Q: What is your platform?

A: Well, I would say that [it] would be associated with the three things that I’m most concerned about. That is, [first] getting kids back in school safely as quickly as we possibly can. [Second, I want to] restart HHS two and finish our strategic plan to get all of the things that are locked into that going. There’s so many pieces of what you could say through my individual platforms, but that strategic plan is a big guiding vision document with action steps and measurable outcomes that we can say. We said we wanted to do this, and we wanted to do that thing in order to do that. I want to get [this] started because that’s the vision, goal, action step, and measurement benchmarks that we can figure out if we got it done. That final platform is to have a conversation with the community about the role of the police in our schools. We want that to happen sooner rather than later.

Q: How do you plan to help the school system?

A: Going back to something I said towards the beginning, I think that my experience as a teacher right now [is beneficial]. In these circumstances, [I am] teaching [on] some of the platforms you guys are learning on [and] teaching under some of the conditions that students in our system are learning [and] under that staff are teaching with me. I teach on Canvas, I have my phone right here getting ready for my three o’clock class because I do Zoom. I have my iPhone. I do like to have all my work here ready to go to class at three o’clock. The thing that I think can help us is [being] that person who’s experiencing that right now until our system gets back to something that looks more like normal.

Q: Where do you think the school system could improve?

A: I would have had a different answer to that, pre-COVID than I do now. For me, I think COVID overwhelms everything. If you would ask me that a year ago, I would have talked about things like teacher salary to help retain and attract the teachers. I would have talked about things like diversity, equity, opportunity, access and discipline. [However] today, my answer would be to get people back in the classroom in a way that feels safe and is as quickly as we could do it under those conditions.

Q: How do you think the pandemic has affected the school system as a whole?

A: Everybody’s harmed. There are different sets of harms I think that go to kids at the high school level, the middle school level and the elementary school level, especially down to the littlest ones who have no experience or very little experience in school. I think as a system, we are improving the way we deal with it every day. Days after our crash [course] for distance [learning] in March, we got food distribution that kids at our schools rely on for meals, and [there were] no hiccups at all. We’re still doing that. Tonight is meal distribution, and my husband and I have been helping out at Spotswood. Second thing is distance [learning] has affected, getting [wireless] access to the schools that need it. We’re doing better [because] Wi Fi access is improving throughout the city, and that’s been good. The other thing that I think we’re improving on is the tools and techniques that we have to lift our curriculum from the classroom to a distance format. That’s improving all along. [In the] last few school board meetings, we’ve had presentations from people in various departments [about it]. The next one I think is how that’s been working for those particular teachers. I have said to our superintendent that I would really like all this to be kept very real in the sense that I know from my own personal experience that this is the hardest year I’ve ever had teaching. The fun parts of it are squashed down to almost nothing, and the hard parts are many many times harder than they ever have been. Let’s not pretend that things are going [super well]. Some of them are going okay, but there’s just a balance of harms that we’re trying to minimize at every single level along the way. I’m not pessimistic, but I am also not sunshine and flowers. I’m trying to be realistic.

Q: How do you think students should start in person learning?

A: I suspect that we’re gonna be dealing with the virus, all the way through [until] possibly next fall. I hope not, but I think realistically that’s probably neither too optimistic nor too pessimistic. I think the CDC guidelines for masks and social distancing will need to be met. [This is] mostly challenging in the high school [and] less challenging as we go to schools that have a little bit more space and a little bit more room. So if that’s what you mean by how, then, I would say by following those guidelines, we can look to other countries [and] their public school systems that have done this and in many cases have been successful. We can look at some private schools within the United States. In many cases that have followed these guidelines with bringing kids back and have also been successful, and we can steal all the good ideas that work.

 

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