Hollywood Parents Brace for Remote School 2.0

Illustration by Steven Scott
Illustration by Steven Scott

Illustration by Steven Scott

As fall semesters start in Los Angeles — once again virtually amid the pandemic — families look to online tutoring, in-home helpers, ditching private schools and even leaving the city altogether: "You can consider renting an RV and taking school on the road."

Back to school is usually a time of eager anticipation, but with Los Angeles County recently hitting a somber milestone of more than 200,000 positive COVID-19 cases, it’s back to the home computer for thousands of students.

“Per Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders, schools cannot physically open until they have come off the state monitoring list for 14 consecutive days,” says Margo Minecki, public information officer at the Los Angeles County Office of Education. “Los Angeles County is on that watch list, so no schools may physically open at this time.” This applies to public and private schools.

It’s a grim reality for families throughout Southern California who were looking forward to getting back on campus and experiencing a slice of normalcy after an abrupt and traumatic end to the last school year amid lockdown orders. “It’s disappointing given the lack of socialization that will continue,” says Paddy Cullen, vp production at Warner Bros. and mother to a high school senior.

Returning to school is dependent on several factors, including the rate of COVID-19 cases. L.A. County’s current case rate is around 300 per 100,000 residents, and in order to even consider on-campus instruction in some form, cases must be less than 200, according to the California Department of Public Health. Some entertainment companies, including ViacomCBS, WME and ICM Partners, are making it clear to employees that they will not be expected to return to offices if schools remain closed. (see sidebar below for more info on what Hollywood companies are offering as resources for employees.)

So, given that it’s learning from the living room until further notice, Hollywood families are exploring a variety
of arrangements.

“We want to give our kids some sense of familiarity, so we’re doing a learning pod with just one other family our kids have grown up with,” says Karyn Smith-Forge, senior vp production at Berlanti Productions. “We’re all getting tested and alternating homes each day. Whichever home the kids are at, that set of parents will be in charge of supervising and providing support with the schoolwork so they don’t get lost in the pandemic shuffle.”

Casting director Seth Yanklewitz also is considering forming a small learning pod. “Me and my ex are both working dads, and we need the support for our son who is going into third grade,” he says. “We would rotate homes with another family, be honest about quarantining and get tested regularly.” He’s also considering hiring someone part time to help care for his daughter, who is a preschooler. “Ideally, it’s someone who can spend time teaching her the basics, otherwise she’ll be sitting in front of a screen for hours each day.”

For parents who are concerned about keeping their preschoolers and Kindergarteners engaged given distance learning can be more challenging for that age, PhD and Psychologist Fay Van Der Kar-Levinson, a prominent advisor to many industry parents, offers some encouraging advice. “One hour of home activities split up into 20-minute intervals of creative play (workbooks, crafts, modeling clay, playing with whipped cream to make letters on a cookie tray) along with some movement in between can equal a good chunk of a school day.” Van Der Kar-Levinson believes children of this age range will be “just fine” because parents are the center of the worlds. “Mommy and Daddy are spectacular to these kids,” she says. “School will continue normally once again, so try to encourage more family bonding, as a stronger base at home can often result in better socialization skills.”

Some parents feel their middle- and high-school-age children will do better while learning remotely if they have some support from online tutors. “The hope is replicating the pedagogical experience as closely as possible while operating remotely,” says showrunner Marc Guggenheim. “Given my kids are self-starters, they don’t need to be overseen, but we’ve also supplemented their educations with at-home tutoring, and that tutoring has continued virtually while we’ve been under quarantine.”

Showrunner Mark Lafferty, a big believer in public education, adds “We really want to support our public school and this is the time to double down on it.” His plan is to supplement with some distance tutoring for their two kids and possibly combine forces with another family from the same school at some point. “There is no firm play book here and we will learn a lot over the next few weeks or months.”

The pandemic also has put a spotlight on socioeconomic inequities nationwide, including in education. “More than 80 percent of the families we serve live in poverty,” says Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent Austin Beutner. That’s something that is top of mind for TV writer-producer Audrey Wauchope. “I’m a big public school supporter, and we’re trying not to lean into furthering the inequities of other families in the city,” she says. “We’re not pulling [my daughter] from school — we know a ton who did and went private or homeschool — and we're not doing a pod with a tutor. We’re sticking with the distance learning the school is providing.”

However, companies that offer supplemental learning options are seeing a big rise in business, including at Embark World Academy, where kids engage in master class-style activities; college prep-focused Xceed Anywhere; and Mastery Coding, which provides career-focused computer programming instruction.

The process of selecting a virtual school or program can be bewildering because of the variety of offerings. Alan Sitomer, CEO of Mastery Coding - a digital learning platform in schools across the country teaching kids workforce-ready skills for a society changed by technology, imparts essential advice. “The big challenge is that no matter where the instructional environment begins during this academic year, it is certain to shift several times, so the critical thing to ask any school or virtual learning program is how they will be able to seamlessly toggle the curriculum between remote, hybrid and on-site education,” he says. “If the school has a solid plan in place, it’s less likely students will regress and go back to square one when the sudden changes inevitably come.”

Dov Engelberg, president of Mulholland Prep, a go-to for industry families seeking academic and testing support, is receiving many tutoring requests — especially given that the typical “summer slide” is not just the standard three months of break, but more like six months when the last semester of distance learning is factored in. “The majority of students haven’t had regular, consistent academic exercise for much longer than usual,” he says. “Parents have expressed concern about their kids falling behind, and a tutor can provide some reassurance and support.”

While many tutors are working virtually, some families are now considering hiring people to help with teaching inside the home, which presents another set of worries. “My husband is in a higher risk group with regards to the virus, so we are very reluctant about hiring anyone,” says Sebastian Dungan, vp original movies at Lifetime. But, he adds, “We need to do something different than what we did last semester because online school was a disaster for our middle schooler, and I don’t see how it will work for our 5-year-old twins, who are supposed to start kindergarten this fall.”

And for students with learning differences, the need for academic support is amplified with virtual learning. “Schooling from home is not only lonely, but it’s even more challenging for my daughter, who is not a self-starter and works with a learning specialist at school,” says one Hollywood producer. “We’re not bringing anyone into our home right now, so there’s none of that in-person support.”

“Learning challenged kids are being done a disservice by the way this situation has rolled out,” says Sitomer, who is also a California Teacher of The Year Award-Winner and author of 20 books on education. “Think about diving into character education and socio-emotional learning, so at the very least, these kids will walk away from this with valuable life skills.”

While the reality of another bout of distance learning settles in, so does the fact of paying private school tuition for remote schooling, which can run upward of $50,000 a year per child. “Why should we pay for private school right now?” says Michael McDonald, head of scripted television at John Legend’s Get Lifted Film Co. “My husband and I are looking at other options for our kids.” And, a studio executive who spoke off the record is skipping preschool along with the double tuitions and will instead have a childcare provider while she and her husband are working. “It also feels safer to keep our two kids at home,” she says. Van Der Kar Levinson, however, cautions about switching schools for kids who are now entering middle school. “If you can handle it financially it behooves kids at this stage to stay with the same school given this is when, developmentally, their social lives and familiar peer connections are so important,’ she says.

Some families are making even more dramatic changes. Van Der Kar-Levinson shares that several of her clients are moving to mountain towns such as Park City and Aspen, where some schools are open. “There’s a yearning to be in that more rural environment,” she says.

Another option: stay enrolled in Los Angeles but be elsewhere. “You can consider renting an RV and taking school on the
road,” says film director Dan Mirvish, who has two kids in the Culver City school system. “This is a challenging time, but we also see it as an opportunity.”

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Among the other benefits and resources that entertainment companies are making available to employees are parenthood resource committees and employee resource groups (CAA, NBCUniversal, WME); access to online parent-support platforms such as LifeCare (ICM) and ReThink Benefits (ViacomCBS) and the stress-management tool meQuilibrium (NBCUniversal); flexible work arrangements (Sony); paid caregiver days off (NBCUniversal) and webinars on topics such as child development and nutrition (Sony) and virtual learning (ViacomCBS). NBCUniversal is offering discounted childcare rates at Bright Horizons while ViacomCBS has offered all U.S. full-time employees access to Bright Horizons’ Additional Family Supports program. And CAA provided parents with a back-to-school kit that includes information on tutoring services, and tips from fellow parents.

Says Ben Hill, senior vice president of human resources at WarnerMedia, “Childcare is one of a number of issues that COVID has caused for our employees, depending on their personal situations. We recently launched an employee survey to better understand the breadth of those issues, and how we as a company can help address them. One of the first actions we’ve taken is to stand up a hub on our intranet with resources designed to help manage work, life, and family. It contains access to our pertinent benefits such as expanded backup care and our employee assistance program, discounts on services such as tutoring and meal delivery, a work-from-home tool kit, and development offerings to help our leaders be more effective – and inclusive – through this time. Foundational to our way of working for the duration of the pandemic is flexibility. Wherever we can provide it to our employees – for childcare, self-care, or any other need – our leadership at every level is expected to offer it.”

Additional reporting by Ashley Cullins

This story first appeared in the Aug. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.