In February 2015 I wrote a post with this headline: “And now, online preschools. Really.”

Given that medical experts warn against too much screen time for young children, and given that early childhood experts say the best way for young children to learn is through structured play, it might have seemed that online preschools didn’t have much of a future.

Guess again.

As early childhood education has increasingly become focused on what is called “rigor,” or an academic focus, which means that kids spend a lot of time in chairs, online preschools have gained a foothold. In 2015, Utah sponsored the first state-funded online “preschool” of its kind, called UPSTART. And the company has expanded pilot programs to at least seven other states, according to the nonprofit Defending the Early Years, which commissions research about early childhood education and advocates for sane policies for young children.

Here’s how the Hechinger Report, an independent nonprofit that reports education news, described some of them in this October 2018 post:

“Some online preschool programs boast ‘award-winning curriculum’ and offer money-back satisfaction guarantees. Others offer subjects like science and art and virtual field trips to animated farms. One kindergarten-readiness program offers children the promise of academic growth in as little as 15 minutes a day, five days a week. It receives funding from the state of Utah to provide online learning to rural children and has launched pilot programs in several states across the country, including Mississippi ...

“Online preschool programs have been growing in recent years, and thousands of parents have signed their children up. The programs offer everything from educational games to a full preschool curriculum complete with boxes of activities that are shipped to a student’s home and a teacher’s guide for an adult. Most online programs are offered by for-profit companies, although perhaps the fastest-growing is UPSTART, which was developed by the nonprofit Waterford Institute and is advertised as a kindergarten-readiness program. That program has been used by children in Idaho, Indiana, South Carolina, rural Ohio and Philadelphia, and is used by 30 percent of Utah’s 4-year-olds. In 2013, the Waterford Institute received an $11.5 million federal grant to expand the program to rural children in Utah.”

This past October, more than 100 early childhood experts and organizations signed a statement calling for an end to public funding of online preschools. The statement, co-authored by Defending the Early Years and the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, said these preschools deny children the hands-on experience that research says in important for young children.

Asserting that this process can take place online, without human contact, falsely implies that the needs of children and families can be met with inexpensive, screen-based alternatives.

“All children deserve high quality early education, and we call on local, state, and federal agencies and policymakers to reject online preschools and invest in fully funded, relationship-based, universal prekindergarten programs with proven long-term benefits.”

Early childhood expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige wrote about the real problems with online preschool on the EdSurge website.

“The recent growth of online preschools, already in existence in at least eight states, gives states an inexpensive way to deliver pre-K education. But it is a sorry substitute for the whole child, play-based early childhood education that all young children deserve to have,” she wrote.

The professor emerita at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., said, “Online pre-K will widen achievement gaps and increase inequality. Kids who get a screen-based pre-K experience will be at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts in wealthier communities who thrive in rich, activity-centered programs that support their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development — programs such as Reggio Emilia, Waldorf, and other quality, play-based preschool programs.”