Lytle’s Beauty College in Santa Rosa struggles to survive during classroom closure for coronavirus safety

The decision to halt online classes has stalled the career paths of the 79 students attending Lytle’s Beauty College. If it cannot resume classes soon, its owner fears the school will never reopen.|

Economic downturns have often been kinder to Kathy Lytle’s beauty college than to other lines of work.

Job loss can lead people to consider new careers, and a certification to cut hair or work in a nail salon or day spa is a popular choice.

“Generally, when the economy was low, the industry does better,” said Lytle, who for 28 years has owned Lytle’s Beauty College in the Wikiup area north of Santa Rosa. “People want to be retrained.”

It’s a different story, though, when the recession is caused by a pandemic that has not only forced millions of Americans into unemployment, but also shuttered the beauty school’s classrooms for more than six months. Lytle’s decision to suspend online classes and shut down entirely last month has stalled the career paths of its 79 students, leaving them unable to make progress toward their cosmetology and esthetician certifications.

If the school cannot resume classes soon, Lytle fears it may never reopen. Between mortgage payments and continued salary expenditures, Lytle said her savings will run out by December.

“It just costs a lot of money to even keep the school closed,” she said. “I’m just devastated.”

Lytle and her staff halted virtual instruction a month ago, putting the school on hiatus with no end in sight. After six months of teaching theory through a screen, they determined the experience was not worth what students were paying for it. It also wasn’t cost efficient for the school.

Kylie Simao, admissions leader and financial aid officer, compared the process to trying to teach someone to swim without a swimming pool.

“It got to a point where we can only lecture so much,” she said. “We won’t toy with somebody’s hours towards their license.”

Each certification requires a set amount of experience before students can take their exams. An esthetician’s license to offer skin care services such as waxing and chemical peels requires 600 hours. A cosmetology license, required to cut and color hair and offer nail services, takes 1,600 training hours.

Ashley Tillman, a Lytle’s student living in Lakeport, is 252 hours away from completing the requirements for her cosmetology license. Seeing her education grind to a halt so close to her goal, she said, has caused some “mental anguish.”

“I go through bouts of feeling OK, and then it’s like my anxiety kicks up,” Tillman said, adding that she’s begun speaking more frequently with a therapist to manage her worries about finances and her family’s future. She had worked for years in retail to save enough money to attend Lytle’s without needing to work at the same time.

A single mom, Tillman has been managing her 9-year-old son Devin’s education this fall while his school remains in distance mode. Since Lytle’s shutdown, she’s been practicing her skills on friends and family members so she doesn’t get rusty.

But none of the free haircuts, colors, manicures or pedicures that she offers while her school remains closed contribute to the requirements for her license.

“We have to be clocked into school under the supervision of our teachers for any (work) to count for us,” Tillman said. “We can’t just do them on our own.”

Though every student has a mannequin to practice on, instructors said it’s a poor substitute for working with real clients and their expectations in the salon.

“You have to listen and look (in order) to shift styles well,” Lytle said. “You gotta learn when to say ‘Mrs. Jones’ and which ones want your arm around them and to be called ’Honey.’ ”

Most mannequins tend to have a similar, coarse texture of hair, Lytle said, though human hair varies much more.

They also don’t communicate much.

“I can rip her hair out with my hairbrush and she’s not complaining,” Tillman said. “I’m not asking a mannequin, ’What do you do with your hair every day?’ ”

While hair salons in Sonoma County have had the green light to resume indoor haircuts since Aug. 31, Lytle’s Beauty College has additional requirements to meet before it can open its student salon to clients. In addition to complying with state and county health guidelines, any instruction from Lytle’s must also align with requirements from the Board of Barbering and Cosmetology and the Bureau for Private and Post-Secondary Education.

“If salons can open and we can teach the theory part via distance education, then why can’t we reopen the student salon so students can continue on their education?” asked Amanda Keith, director of Lytle’s Beauty College.

Sonoma County on Wednesday aligned local health orders with state guidelines, easing local restrictions that exceeded what is laid out in California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy guidances. Lytle’s staff are now poring over state guidance on higher education to see whether the county’s announcement will pave a way for them to open even before Sonoma County reaches a lower tier of infection spread.

Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer, acknowledged the possibility Wednesday.

“If they have a good plan and they’re able to meet all the standards and recommendations, then yeah, they’re good to go,” she said.

It’s not the first time since March, though, that school administrators have gotten their hopes up about returning to the classroom. Each time, some restriction caused a snag, Lytle said. School staff communicated with the county Health Services Department and the Economic Development Board, but throughout the summer were told their school had no recourse to do any in-person instruction.

And if the school leadership miscalculates whether state regulators or their accrediting agency are on board with the resumption of classroom instruction, students could lose financial aid opportunities or discover later the hours they earned don’t count toward licensing requirements.

Some students have had to withdraw from the school during the wait. But prospective students have also called about admission while the school has been closed. Simao has told them Lytle’s can’t offer them a place while closed.

“My gut feeling is that this might be it,” Lytle said, "it“ meaning their chance to reopen. "But I still have eith hours or more of work before I’ll feel even confident to even say that. And I still might be wrong.“

In the 45 years since her father bought the Redwood Empire Beauty College and rebranded under the family name, Lytle has seen a number of other cosmetology schools close down in the Bay Area. During her own years as the owner, she also has experienced hard times.

“I have actually refinanced my house once,” she said. “During ’08, when things got really tough, to keep the beauty college alive. And we recovered, came back and it was fine.”

But COVID-19 and its ensuing restrictions on both the beauty industry and higher education dealt Lytle and her staff a much more punishing challenge. If the college closed, not only would local students face long commutes to San Francisco or Sacramento to complete their training hours, but the school’s community service would also be discontinued.

For the first time in her 24 years with the school, Lytle’s staff didn’t provide free hai styling and makeup services for graduation night events, due to the coronavirus, said Keith, a Lytle’s graduate before she became director.

Lytle’s partnered with a local radio station, Froggy 92.9, on annual hair donation drives for cancer patients between 2009 and 2013, said Jocelyn Taylor, who once worked at the radio station.

“Lytles donated their salon, they donated their faculty to cut the hair, their students who tied off the hair and cut off all of the ponytails,” Taylor said. “They dedicated that whole salon ... and they did it without hesitation.”

It would be a “heartbreaking loss” if COVID-19 restrictions spelled the end of the college, she said.

“Whether they can reopen or there is a miracle or another solution ahead, let’s cross our fingers and hope for that,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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