When Long Beach Unified School District campuses reopened for full-day instruction in the fall, it was only the beginning of the long process of restarting campus life in a massive public school system.
Almost every month this school year has brought the reopening of another aspect of campus culture, as programs are brought back online with public health permission one by one, almost like flipping circuit breakers back on after a short.
In January, the district got permission to restart its “volunteers in public schools” program in a limited capacity—welcome news for district teachers and parents across the city.
The LBUSD’s VIPS program is massive; the last full school year before the pandemic, the district received almost 3,000 applications from parents to volunteer in classrooms, according to Carmen Hernandez, an LBUSD administrator who works with the VIPS program. That’s a big number for a school district with approximately 3,400 full-time teachers.
“While the program was paused we heard from many teachers and parents,” said Hernandez. “It’s very sweet. People are just really excited to welcome those smiling faces back on campus.”
There are still restrictions on the flow of people in and out of campuses, both due to public health orders and to the district’s memorandums of understanding with its labor unions. Currently, only two VIPS per classroom or office are allowed, and in addition to the normal screening and background checks that parents have to pass to volunteer, they have to either provide proof of vaccination or a weekly negative COVID-19 test.
According to Hernandez, the district has VIPS at elementary, middle and high schools, although they’re certainly mostly known on elementary school campuses. She said they support school life in a variety of ways.
“In addition to our K-12 campuses they support our Head Starts, our CDCs (Child Development Centers), and Buffum Total Learning Center,” said Hernandez. “We have parents who want to volunteer in a class, but also agencies and community partnerships and colleges who have programs with us, and interns who want to become teachers or counselors.”
At Lafayette Elementary School in the Wrigley neighborhood, Principal David Komatz said it’s been a struggle to handle a return to campus without parent volunteers.
“They’re very active, they’re integral, they’re the lifeblood for this school,” he said.
Lafayette has a dual-language immersion program, and having parents involved makes every aspect of the school’s education and extracurricular activities easier. Komatz pointed out that after-school events or field trips are often the most memorable parts of the school experience for students.
“All those events that happen after hours, our VIPS are a big part of making those happen,” he said. “When schools first reopened and things were very limited, we could find a way to get by. Now that we’re getting back into the swing of things they’re really needed.”
Eloisa Diaz is the president of the Lafayette Parent Booster Club and has been a volunteer on campus for several years with a current second-grader at the school as well as a Lafayette grad currently in middle school.
Interviewed through a translator, Diaz stressed the importance of once again having the opportunity to give back at her children’s school.
“After these two years of the pandemic it’s important that everyone is motivated and feels welcome,” she said. “We are so happy to be here; we have a lot of plans for the kids and families. Our motto to parents we are recruiting is ‘Come to the Parent Booster Club and realize that you are welcome in a place where you didn’t know you belonged.’”
Diaz said that in addition to raising money for the school, on-campus volunteerism is at the heart of the club.
“We try to do everything we can to make the school a better place for the kids,” she said. “If people can give five minutes of work, it gives the teachers five minutes more to work with the kids. We are a big family here.”
At Prisk Elementary in East Long Beach, on-campus volunteers and the school’s PTA have always been a big part of school culture. Principal Beth Cohen said that after returning to campus she heard frequently from teachers asking when VIPS would be able to return.
“I heard constantly about getting them back. No one could wait to get them back,” she said. “They’re essential. The amount of hours that our parents put in is really astounding.”
Cohen said VIPS at Prisk have helped with everything from storytime reading to math practice or reading fluency by having students read to them. That’s in addition to their help with after-school events.
“Our musical performances, music lessons, art projects, so many things wouldn’t be possible or are extremely difficult for a teacher without our VIPS,” she said.
One Prisk teacher who’s perhaps more appreciative of VIPS than most is third-grade Prisk GATE teacher Colette Napier. Her own parents had helped in her children’s classes, so when one of her students’ grandmothers asked her if she needed help in her class, Napier loved the idea. Eleven years later, she and her VIPS superstar Carole Pollard are still a team, and inseparable—until the pandemic closed campuses to non-teachers and students.
During that time, Napier said Pollard would meet her outside of school to get assignments to help grade or anything else she could do to help lighten the load.
“She’s invaluable, all the time that she helps with laminating, or grading, or cutting things, that’s time I get to spend planning classroom experiences for my kids,” said Napier.
That dedication is why the district’s VIPS office awarded Pollard with a VIPS MVP award a few years back. And it’s why Napier said she was so happy when Pollard was able to rejoin her in the classroom this semester.
“It was a joyous reunion, and the kids love to see her too, it brings everyone a lot of joy,” said Napier. “If I run out of things for her to do she’ll ask the office if anyone else needs help. It was really challenging coming back without her and we all love having her back.”