Online Academy Prompted By Pandemic Shuts Down

Michael Martinez loved being a St. Thomas Catholic Online Academy student, his mother, Michelle, said. So much so that she is leery of telling him about the academy’s closure out of fear of upsetting him. (Photo: Courtesy of Michelle Martinez)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Online Academy, the Diocese of Brooklyn’s only fully remote online school that offered an alternative during the pandemic, has closed.

Officials confirmed the closing on Monday, July 18. The academy started as a remote option for all Catholic school parents in the diocese during the height of the pandemic in 2020. It opened as its own academy in 2021.

“It is closed as of now, and it will not reopen in September,” said Deacon Kevin McCormack, superintendent for the Diocese of Brooklyn.

Deacon McCormack cited declining enrollment as the reason to close the K-8 academy. The projected enrollment for September was 50 students. 

“That works out to about five students per class. And we haven’t had anyone express an interest in enrolling their children in months,” he explained, calling the situation “unsustainable.”

The academy’s goal when it opened was to reach an enrollment of 225 students. That goal was then lowered to 150 students. “We have about a third of that,” Deacon McCormack said.

In September 2021, the enrollment was 160 students. The numbers dropped precipitously between September 2021 and June 2022 as many parents who originally sought the remote learning option to protect their kids from possible exposure to COVID-19 returned their children to in-person schools as the pandemic eased.

Parents were informed of the shutdown via a July 13 email from Dr. Stephen Haessler, the principal. 

“Since February 2022, the administrative team for STACOA has been aggressively recruiting students, and it has been our intent to continue online education for families that desire to continue,” he wrote.

Some parents of students who were still enrolled said they are disappointed and surprised by the news.

Michelle Martinez, whose son Michael would have entered second grade at St. Thomas Aquinas in September, said she hasn’t told her son about the closing yet because he will be upset. “He loved the school,” she said.

In December 2021, when The Tablet visited with the Martinez family, Michael’s dad, also named Michael, said he was pleased with the education his son was getting. 

“I noticed that he did really well with the program last year,” Michael Martinez said. Based on that experience, he and Michelle decided to keep Michael in the program for the 2021-2022 school year; for them, “it was basically a no-brainer.”

At the time, Michael Martinez didn’t envision his son ever returning to an in-person classroom. 

Michelle Martinez believes the school should remain open, especially given that the U.S. is facing a sixth COVID-19 variant that may cause parents to re-think educational options for their children.

Another parent, Alisha Ahmed-Hanif, is now looking to find another school for her daughter, Nazeera, who will enter the third grade in September.

“I’m trying to find another online academy. In-person is not an option,” she said.

Ahmed-Hanif had also enrolled her younger daughter in kindergarten at St. Thomas Aquinas for September.

According to Deacon McCormack, parents will not be left high and dry.

“We have offered assistance for all children to return to their local Catholic schools and are helping the faculty find placement in our academies,” he said.