A Vermont high school that had to close due to chemical contamination reopened last year in a unique new location — an old Macy's department store building in downtown Burlington.
Burlington High School principal Lauren McBride said that during plans to remodel the school building, contractors discovered polychlorinated biphenyls — highly toxic chemical compounds — within the school. After an air quality test was performed, the school board and health department decided the school should continue meeting virtually, a practice already in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was pretty devastating," McBride told TODAY Parents. "Forget all the work that had gone on in preparation for the year — we were also ready to have our kids back."
Watch TODAY All Day! Get the best news, information and inspiration from TODAY, all day long.
The school began the 2020-2021 school year in a virtual format, but as school officials began their search for a new place to hold in-person classes, the owners of an empty building that formerly housed a Macy's store reached out. The Macy's had closed in 2018 and the vacant building appeared to be a perfect location for the school's 1,000 students.
In December 2020, contractors began transforming the former shopping destination into a high school.
"It was wild," McBride said of the project, which took 10 weeks and $3.5 million to complete. "I remember walking in in the middle of December and looking around at literally a vacant store with not a single wall. Nothing. I thought, 'How are they going to do this?' But they did."
After installing 8-foot cubicle walls to section off classrooms and moving school essentials like desks, white boards and copiers into the new location, teachers spent two days at the beginning of March moving into their new classrooms.
On March 4, students began attending in person at a school with distinct department store features, such as "fitting room" signs, the traditional Macy's red carpet and posters advertising brands like Levi's and Ralph Lauren.
"It was all purposeful," McBride said of the left-behind artifacts. "When we were walking through the space for the first time when it was still a blank slate, the head of the construction firm said they could leave all those things and I said, 'Leave it. The coolest thing about this is that this was a Macy's — we're not going to hide that fact.'"
There's even a working escalator in the two-story building, something McBride said came with a bit of a learning curve.
"People were like, 'I can't believe you have escalators for high schoolers, that's just a disaster, what are you thinking?'" McBride recalled. "I knew they'd be fine and they've been great."
"We had some first-time riders that had never ridden an escalator before, so those first couple days we had a student support team that helped students who were trying to figure out how to navigate it," she added. "Now, it’s just the normal function. It’s a stairwell in the middle of the school."
As their original school building is renovated, McBride said she and her staff are planning to be in the Macy's building for about three and a half years.
As students adjust to their new normal, there are plans to have students paint murals on the white cubicle walls and add other touches to the building to make it feel more like their own.
"There’s been this real just settling in of how this may look different, but it's school and it's ours," McBride said. "Day by day, we’re settling in a little bit more and people are just happy to be back in person and able to engage."