Online Academy caused by pandemic shutdown

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

HEIGHTS OF PERSPECTIVE — St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Online Academy, the only fully remote online school in the Diocese of Brooklyn that offered an alternative during the pandemic, has closed its doors.

Officials confirmed the closure on Monday, July 18. The academy began as a remote option for all parents of Catholic students in the diocese at the height of the pandemic in 2020. It opened its own academy in 2021.

“It is closed at the moment and will not reopen in September,” said Deacon Kevin McCormack, superintendent of the Brooklyn Diocese.

Deacon McCormack cited declining enrollment as the reason for the K-8 academy’s closure. The planned enrollment for September was 50 students.

“That equates to about five students per class. And no one has shown interest in enrolling their children for months,” he said, calling the situation “unsustainable.”

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

As of September 2021, 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 children from possible exposure to COVID-19 sent their children back to schools. in person as the pandemic subsided.

Parents were notified of the closure via a July 13 email from Dr. Stephen Haessler, the director.

“Since February 2022, the STACOA administrative team has been aggressively recruiting students, and we intend to continue online education for families who wish to continue,” he wrote.

Some parents of students still enrolled say 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 had not yet told her son of the closure because he would be upset. “He loved school,” she said.

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

“I noticed that he did really well in the program last year,” said Michael Martinez. Based on this experience, he and Michelle decided to keep Michael on the program for the 2021–22 school year; for them, “it was basically a no-brainer.”

At the time, Michael Martinez did not envision his son ever returning to a classroom in person.

Michelle Martinez thinks school should stay open, especially as the United States faces a sixth variant of COVID-19 that could have parents rethinking educational options for their children.

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

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

Ahmed-Hanif had also registered his youngest daughter in kindergarten at Saint-Thomas d’Aquin for September.

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

“We have offered assistance to all children to return to their local Catholic schools and help teachers find placements in our academies,” he said.

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