Ruby Wool’s new high school has twin escalators with ornate wood paneling. Her environmental science class has a bright red carpet and a Calvin Klein logo on the wall. The cafeteria is emblazoned with a Michael Kors logo; a classroom features a large Levi’s ad.
Wool is among almost 1,000 students now attending classes in a former Macy’s department store after toxic chemicals were discovered in Burlington High School in Vermont, forcing a quick relocation. The curious education setting has drawn national attention and more than a few somewhat dated jokes about teenagers hanging out at the mall.
For students who had already been displaced by the pandemic, it was yet another twist in a tumultuous year.
“We had an urgency of just getting here as soon as we could to have in-person classes, but now that we’re here it’s, we’re kind of dedicating more time and effort to make it grow into high school,” said Wool, a senior. “You have to make the effort to go find community right now.”
The move comes as communities across the country consider how to use retail spaces that once housed malls and department stores and now sit eerily empty. In Burlington, school officials hope the influx of students and teachers will help connect the school with the city’s downtown.
Students who had left campus last March because of the coronavirus pandemic were set to return part time in September, but an inspection of the school revealed dangerously high levels of PCBs, a family of chemicals banned in the United States in 1979 because they were found to cause cancer and other adverse health effects.
“They found [it] in the caulking around the windows,” said Tom Flanagan, who became superintendent of the city’s public schools last July. “They found that it was in the soil outside of the building . . . the more they looked, the more they found.”
When an air-quality test showed one building had PCB levels above the state’s threshold, he decided to close the school building.
“We came back and our school was wrapped in caution tape,” said Marion Boa, a science teacher. “And that was quite traumatic for all of us, students, teachers, families. I remember our superintendent gathered us all in front of the school, because we couldn’t go into the building, and basically said, ‘We need to pivot.’ ”
Teachers were deeply worried about the impact on students, already burdened by the isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic.
“It took our home,” acting principal Lauren McBride said. “Whereas educators throughout the country have been able to still go into their schools, able to be in their classrooms and teach remotely. . . . We haven’t had that.”
During the fall, students were primarily learning remotely. Those who wanted to attend in person could go to a middle school on Wednesdays, when it was empty.
District officials meanwhile were scrambling to find a new school. They were touring a potential site for district offices with Dave Farrington Jr., owner of Farrington Construction, when he came up with an idea: What about the old Macy’s building?
The two-story, 150,000-square-foot building, once a cornerstone of a mall that has since been torn down, had been sitting empty since 2018. It had escalators running through its center, high ceilings, and some leftover glass cases that used to showcase jewelry and perfumes.
It wasn’t a high school. But it could be one, at least for a few years.
Farrington, who knew the building from occasional trips to pick up a tie or button-down shirt, got to work in December. He had 10 weeks to make it happen, an especially tight timeline considering that a single COVID-19 case could shut down construction.
All winter between 40 and 60 employees, some borrowed from rival contracting companies, hauled out the old fixtures and installed classroom walls. They rewired the building, replaced some carpeting in what would become a chemistry lab with new flooring, and used the store’s old footpaths to guide their new designs.
They built 7,000 feet of wall, about 3 miles worth of baseboard and trim, and installed roughly 200 doors. They finished about a week ahead of schedule, without a single positive COVID-19 test.
“It was the longest 10 weeks of my life and the shortest 10 weeks of my life at the same time,” Farrington said.
To keep costs down on the $3.5 million renovation, many aspects of the old store were retained, like the fitting room signs over the bathrooms.
The new building opened earlier this month on a hybrid schedule. Students quickly took to the novel location and the ability to reunite in person after a year apart. From the top of the escalators, they can see who is coming through the doors and who is hanging out below.
“For me it was less about like being in Macy’s again,” said Peter Kuypers, a junior. “It was more just seeing everyone. I felt myself smiling the whole day, and I was waving at teachers that I haven’t seen in a while, waving at students that didn’t get to see. So that was just an amazing experience, to have everything come back at once, and to really feel like we’re going to have a high school again.”
After almost a full year of remote learning, Ronald Buck, a physical education teacher, walked into his new gym — a former warehouse with towering ceilings and concrete floors — and started to picture what he could make of it. The district has agreed to provide rubberized floor mats and plastic caps for the florescent lights that hang from the ceiling, and Buck pictures paint-splattered walls and black lights to create a gym students will want to spend time in.
“I started to look at workspaces differently. And so now, you know, whatever space I get, as long as I can get it in person. we can have a good time,” Buck said.
The old building’s fate is still unclear, Flanagan said. In the coming months, the city will have to decide whether to remove and contain the PCBs or build a new high school. Students will stay in the Macy’s building for the foreseeable future, with the district paying $3.2 million in annual rent.
In the new building, Boa teaches science in a second-floor classroom that once was the store’s baby department, bright red carpet still under 12 student desks and metallic silver balloon decals reminiscent of a Macy’s-themed baby shower decorating the walls. She soon hopes to decorate the walls with some art, maybe images of nearby Lake Champlain.
For now, Boa has some Wisconsin fast plants for a genetics experiment sprouting under grow lights, since her classroom is windowless. And her students are learning about PCBs, the very chemicals that forced them to relocate.
“We have had to be very flexible this year, and know that any space can become a classroom,” Boa said. “Whether it’s a traditional classroom built in the 1970s, whether it’s a abandoned department store, whether it’s at home, from your kitchen table.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at email@example.com or at 617-929-2043.