When Meesha Chang and her husband set out to get their oldest child into their first-choice New York City preschool in 2018, it was no easy task.
"It was so competitive," Chang said. "We were trying to network with all of the parents around us. I was told you had to camp out 12 hours before registration opened just to get a chance to apply to the school."
The establishment in question was the Greenpoint YMCA, a selective preschool in Brooklyn. After initially having been placed on the school's waitlist, Chang's daughter eventually was granted admission.
"It was like winning the lottery," Chang said. "It was everything we'd hoped for."
But less than a year after Chang won what she calls "the golden ticket" to the preschool, she and her husband, worried about safety issues in the age of the coronavirus and the challenges of remote learning for young children, pulled out of the school.
The couple are among the many parents calling it quits on New York City preschools.
As more families come to terms with safety worries about their children and frustration with remote learning sessions — and as a growing number of young families leave Manhattan and Brooklyn — the face of once highly competitive private preschools in New York City is changing, with a growing number of schools suspending classes or closing altogether.
"I've never seen anything like this," said Ilysa Winick, founder of Reade Street Prep, a private preschool in Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood.
Winick said her school traditionally gets far more applications than it has available seats. But this year, the school has dropped from 250 enrolled families to "around 150," she said.
And many of the families currently enrolled are taking part in what Winick called a "bridge" program, meaning they are paying full tuition to hold their children's spots but are opting to keep their children out of school until later.
A key reason for the drop in enrollment, Winick said: A number of families are leaving New York City. Winick said lots of families, concerned about safety issues related to the pandemic or embracing new flexibility because parents are able to work remotely, are moving out of the city.
"We're working to hang in there," Winick said.
Even with the loss of 100 families, Winick considers herself lucky, saying "at least four" neighboring schools in lower Manhattan have quietly folded in recent months, some after having been open for decades.
This year's closings and scale-backs of top Manhattan and Brooklyn preschools is a far cry from the preschool scene depicted in the 2008 documentary "Nursery University," in which parents duked it out for coveted preschool slots. The intense competition resulted in a preschool scandal that The Wall Street Journal dubbed "kid pro quo," in which a telecom stock analyst, Jack Grubman, tried to pull strings to get his twins into the highly competitive 92nd Street YMCA preschool.
Preschools that once enrolled as many as 40 kids now have just five students.
And in preschools that remain open, enrollment numbers are considerably down. Robin Aranow, a New York City education consultant and founder of School Search NYC, who has worked with Manhattan preschools for more than 20 years, said preschools that once enrolled as many as 40 4-year-olds now have as few as five students.
"This year's enrollment numbers are the lowest I've seen," Aranow said.
Karen Quinn, a national education consultant and co-founder of The Testing Mom, an online test preparation program for parents seeking to place their children in elite schools, said: "It feels like more parents are forgoing preschool this year. More and more are asking, 'Why should I be spending this money?'"
In New York City, private preschool tuition rates typically start at $10,000, and they can climb to two and three times that rate, depending upon the program.
"Especially in a city like New York or other cities where preschool is very expensive, we've seen a lot of people giving up preschool and keeping their kids home, and either one parent is doing home-schooling or other family members are working with the kids," Quinn said.
Frustrating for many families with preschool-age children, Quinn said, are attempts by schools to teach children through Zoom calls. While online teaching may work for older children, Quinn said, it's challenging for children ages 2 to 5.
"There were tech issues, kids didn't get called on, teachers were experiencing difficulty managing a big class," Quinn said.
Chang said her preschool tried some video calls in the spring, when the pandemic hit, but the sessions failed to hold her daughter's attention.
"The kids just screamed and played with the keyboard," Chang said. "It was a nightmare."
It's the fear that her preschool could have to rely on video learning this fall that, in part, prompted Jackie Brown to pull her daughter out of the Manhattan preschool she'd been signed up for.
"These programs aren't cheap," Brown said of the preschool, which she said costs nearly $20,000 a year. "I'm not interested in sending her to school this year if, by November, the school is perhaps going to be teaching kids by Zoom.
"For what I'm looking for her in a school setting, I don't think there's anything that Zoom can offer that I wouldn't be able to find already online. I think so much for her age is about being outside, learning other people's expressions," Brown said.
The preschool she'd signed her daughter up for has held her daughter's spot until next year. For now, she and her daughter are sitting this school year out.
Earlier this year, Amy Caron paid the deposit to send her daughter to Manhattan Country School, a competitive preschool. She was dismayed to learn that the school was offering only remote learning this fall while still charging parents pre-pandemic tuition rates.
"We try to limit technology, and she doesn't do well on a computer," Caron said of her four-year-old daughter. "When you are laying that money out for tuition, you want to have stimulation and a good education, not a computer."
Caron and her husband are working with the school to get their deposit back, and they are seeking out a new preschool program that better suits their daughter's needs.
"I think across the board what this pandemic has done is make everyone pause and figure out what's most important for their families and their children," Caron said.
Quinn said 2020-21 may be a game-changer in the world of private preschools, in New York and beyond.
"A lot of parents are rethinking preschools in New York. And I've heard from parents in Indianapolis, in Atlanta, in other areas, who also are pulling their kids out of private preschools, wondering if preschool is worth it," she said.
"When you are laying that money out for tuition, you want to have stimulation and a good education, not a computer."
Quinn anticipates that a growing number of families may opt to home-school their children until they start pre-K or kindergarten programs and round out home-schooling with private tutor sessions.
Chang said she isn't the only parent to have pulled her child out of the Greenpoint YMCA preschool program this year. "I heard from a lot of other parents they weren't going back, either," she said.
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The fact that so many families rethought enrollment in the once highly selective school, which had a waitlist of more than 100 families as recently as last year, has had an impact on this academic year.
In a statement, Erik Opsal, a spokesperson for the YMCA, said: "We were not able to open our Greenpoint early child care service this year due to low enrollment because of Covid-19. It's too early to tell about future years."
Chang said that for now, she isn't ready to send her child to any private preschool and is looking at forming an education pod with other like-minded, safety-conscious parents.