As high-schoolers in Atlanta continue to attend virtual classes from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, their local school district has made an exception for at least one famous student: Peter Parker.
The actors playing him and the rest of the cast in the upcoming “Spider-Man” movie have been granted special permission to film inside two school buildings early next year, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, in a decision that appears to have generated pushback from some parents and teachers.
As real-life Atlanta Public Schools students have been left without much of a clue as to when they might be able to return to in-person classes, they say a comic-book superhero does not deserve priority during a public health crisis – even if his brief presence at their schools could generate thousands of dollars in additional funding.
“In person school is not only safe, it’s necessary for learning,” one mother and teacher wrote on Twitter. “Too bad kids don’t generate the millions a movie does, or they’d be back in front of their teacher in a classroom rather than a computer screen.”
Officials with Atlanta Public Schools as well as Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios, the production agencies behind the third film, did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post.
Both the film industry and public education have been upended by the pandemic, which has now killed at least 266,000 people in the United States. With cases mounting as winter sets in, the debate in Atlanta offers a case study in how competing pressures have collided in efforts to bring those fields back to normal.
As The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit reported, there is growing evidence that students can safely return to in-person classes with masks and other protective measures. But a surging pandemic has led the state of Kentucky and Spider-Man’s actual school system in New York City to again order school closures, putting students back in less-than-ideal learning conditions that place an additional burden on working parents.
Coronavirus restrictions, too, have forced many productions to pause, budgets to rise or even be canceled outright, The Post’s Steven Zeitchik reported. Many release dates in the Marvel cinematic universe, including the next Spider-Man film, have been delayed by several months due to the pandemic.
Decision-makers in both areas have been left to weigh safety and efforts to kick-start their respective fields: With no end in sight for the pandemic, what sorts of activities are worth justifying the risk?
“This is a heavy, Herculean weight for any superintendent, and I know that I am not alone,” Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Lisa Herring told the Journal-Constitution last month. “I just want our families and our staff to know that these decisions are not just randomly made.”
In recent years, metro Atlanta’s rapidly growing film and television scene has led the city to be dubbed the “Hollywood of the South.” Local schools have played the setting for several productions, including 2016′s Academy Award-nominated “Hidden Figures” and the 2017 Ice Cube comedy “Fist Fight,” according to WXIA.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” was also shot in part at two area high schools, each of which received $17,000 in return from producers: Frederick Douglass High School and Henry W. Grady High School. With Tom Holland in the spider suit, the 2017 film – focusing on Parker’s life in high school – was a box-office hit, and development soon began on another film in the series.
But in March, as coronavirus infections ticked up and alarm spread over crowded school settings, the Atlanta school district announced it would be shifting to online-only classes for two weeks. Any use of school facilities for film productions were also halted.
Eight months and several delays later, students have still not returned to their school buildings. Herring said last month that Atlanta students would not be back for in-person lessons until the new year at the earliest.
Yet, after the location manager for “Spider-Man” floated a $50,000 reward for the schools, the film reportedly received approval to film at Douglass in January and at Grady several weeks later.
In an email obtained by the Journal-Constitution through an open-records request, film location manager Ian Easterbrook told district officials that filming at the two Atlanta high schools was “vital to the success of this next film.”
“I know that APS is currently not accepting filming applications due to the COVID pandemic, and I know that filming a new movie quickly falls to the bottom of the priority list,” he wrote on behalf of Sony and Marvel.
Easterbrook said the request was “unique and very time-sensitive” and had “exhausted our normal channels of communication” before going to Herring and members of the Atlanta Board of Education.
Seth Coleman, a spokesman for the district, told the newspaper that Atlanta schools have received multiple requests to film on school properties. But the forthcoming “Spider-Man” movie was the first to be granted permission to do so, specifically because the franchise had previously used the sites before.
According to the newspaper, the district will collect $750 for each day required to prepare and tear down the set as well as $2,500 for each day of filming. Individual schools can also negotiate a donation from producers, and Coleman said $50,000 allocated by “Spider-Man” producers could be used for pandemic-specific needs, like coronavirus tests, virtual learning tools or enhanced air-filtration systems.
But parents and teachers on social media nonetheless slammed the superhero production getting the green light as students remain in a state of uncertainty.
“My first thought was, my grandson Ezra would love this. Second thought was: Moratoriums don’t mean much when it comes down to money,” one woman wrote on Twitter. “Georgia’s film industry matters so much we are willing to take a chance over protecting lives?”
Others argued that if it was safe enough for actors to be allowed inside schools, the same should be true for students. And one mother called the “Spider-Man” decision “shameful.”
“Pretty much sums it up,” she said. “We have abandoned children.”