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Parents are paying US$50,000 for prep schools their kids might not attend

[NEW YORK] After fleeing New York for their second homes, some of the wealthiest families in the US are paying to reserve spots in the city's elite schools — even though their children may not show up in the fall.

One Upper East Side mom said she has paid full tuition — more than US$50,000 per child — to Manhattan private schools for her kids, while also enrolling them in public school two thousand miles away out West, where the family is currently staying.

When she has more clarity on the situation, the mom said, she wants her children back in Manhattan classrooms, whether that happens in October or March. Until then, she hopes they will perhaps Zoom in to join friends in New York for homeroom once a week, and also attend in-person classes at the public school.

In the rarefied world of New York City private schools, where tuition can rival that at an Ivy League college, the process of securing entry has always been fraught with anxiety. This year, after pandemic-related lockdowns sent families scurrying to places like the Hamptons or Florida, many are contemplating whether they should stay outside the city and risk losing a coveted spot.

The answer seems to be to spend enough to cover all options, with some families telling administrators they are putting down nonrefundable deposits at more than one school. Meanwhile, faced with the prospect that their sought-after seats may eventually not be filled, some schools are making unusual moves in a bid to shield themselves from the upheaval.

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"A lot of people are just hedging their bets," said Fanning Hearon, who is head of school at Palm Beach Day Academy in Florida, where a number of New York families applied. On Wednesday alone, Hearon had three students confirm enrollment while two others dropped out.

At Grace Church School in New York's Greenwich Village, where tuition is US$53,330, about 4 per cent of families said they don't expect to be back for the upcoming year, despite putting down deposits of US$6,000 per child, said George Davison, the head of the school, which has 780 students in grades pre-K through 12. Those families received permission not to pay the full amount, and if they don't return the following year, they forfeit their deposit, he said. The school has granted this option regularly before.

Parents can pay US$8,500 — about 15 per cent of the cost of tuition — to take a year's break from Avenues: The World School, while reserving their spot for fall 2021. Scores of families expressed interest in the online-only program at Avenues, which opened a location in the Hamptons this year, school president Jeff Clark said.

Often, private schools require deposits in February or March depending on the child's grade, and many need a payment due by July 1. This year, administrators at four schools told Bloomberg they are giving parents extra time to make up their minds.

The indecision is exacerbating challenges the schools are facing. Parents who have paid to reserve spaces at two institutions have created logistical headaches for administrators who have to hire teachers, set up classes and plan. "Schools don't even know if they're officially going to be coming back," said Roxana Reid, an admissions consultant who founded Smart City Kids Inc.

The Horace Mann School in the Riverdale section of the Bronx is telling parents that if they want their child to stay enrolled, they'll need to be back this year, or reapply for next year, according to four parents who spoke to Bloomberg. The school didn't return a message seeking comment.

Even the most carefully thought-through plans could be demolished by the path of an unpredictable virus, public health officials warn.

"You might invest significant time and resources and do things that are hugely disruptive to yourself and your children, and a month later come to regret it because where you went is worse and has more cases than where you came from," said Jeff Pothof, an emergency-room physician and chief quality officer at UW Health who is advising school districts in the Madison, Wisconsin, area.

The upheaval is giving hope to some public-school parents looking for a rare spot in private school. Robin Aronow, who founded school admissions consulting firm School Search NYC, said she's seen about 25 per cent more business than a typical summer, mostly from public school parents.

Schools, which don't usually enroll many new students over the summer, are more open to speaking with new families. "They hope their own families will be able to return," Ms Aronow said. "They're also being realistic that they may have openings to fill."

Others, however, expect their ranks to remain tight. At the sought-after Trinity School, which dates to 1709 and charges about US$55,000 a year, nobody has pulled out for the fall, spokesman Kevin Ramsey said. Enrollment for the 2020-2021 year is 1,058 students, from kindergarten through high school. "If you found that place that is the right fit for your child and your family, you're going to want to stay there," he said.

Several schools, such as the Dalton School on the Upper East Side, will provide a completely online-only option. Dalton is only allowing students with "specific circumstances and restrictions" to go fully remote, according to a June 25 letter sent to parents and confirmed by a spokesman.

Parent Yesim Philip said her family was sticking with New York. But they were still figuring out the logistics, such as transportation. So far, they're comfortable with the existing method of getting from their home on the Upper East Side to school on the far west side, said Ms Philip, the chief executive officer of sportswear firm L'Etoile Sport.

"Usually, a few kids share an Uber there, and going back they actually walk," she said.

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