Burlington High School will relocate to old Macy’s store in wake of toxic chemical clos

By Maggie Reynolds

Administrative officials have been hard at work creating a function space that includes academic classrooms, a cafeteria, and spaces for extracurricular activities.

Burlington High School is set to re-open on March 4 in a renovated building that was once a Macy’s department store in downtown Burlington. The refurbishment, a $10-million project expected to be completed by Feb. 22, was initiated as a solution to the discovery of toxic chemicals in the old high school complex and its consequent closure in the fall. 

Burlington School District superintendent Tom Flanagan is optimistic about the project. “We are excited about learning opportunities downtown and partnerships with theaters and businesses, as well as new, rich programs that will provide deep learning,” he said.

The former Macy’s store, located on Cherry Street, has 150,000 square feet of space, providing enough room for all of the academic classrooms in addition to music spaces, a cafeteria and areas for physical education class and afterschool sports. 

“The walls are up; faculty and staff are prepping for what next semester’s going to look like. Everyone’s really excited just by the opportunity to get back into a home,” said Lauren McBride, the high school’s acting principal, in an interview with VTDigger. 

The renovated building is a temporary home for Burlington High School while officials evaluate the old complex and the feasibility of removing PCBs. The district has signed a three-and-a-half year lease on the former Macy’s building, costing $1.2 million per year, and looks to complete initial chemical testing at the old complex by July. In light of high costs and extreme circumstances, the state is expected to bear the cost of the temporary school’s construction.

Though the district plans to begin spring instruction with only two days of in-person learning each week, Flanagan is hopeful that a shift to a fully in-person model will be possible in the near future. 

“As vaccinations increase, the secretary of education thinks we will be back closer to fully in-person by April,” Flanagan said. 

The move to Macy’s was precipitated by an unexpected turn of events in September. During preparation for an upcoming $70 million renovation project, air and soil tests revealed dangerously high levels of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the old Burlington High School building. Vermont Department of Health guidelines required the school to halt in-person learning while administrators and the school board considered how best to move forward. 

 According to Flanagan, there were some benefits to the sudden move online. The district had originally planned a hybrid learning model in which students only interacted with their teachers twice a week. However, once the school went fully remote, it implemented a new model that gave the students four to five days of real-time contact with their teachers on Zoom, which is more interaction than was occurring at [most] other high schools in the area. 

Another silver lining Flanagan identified in transitioning online was the increase in availability of support for and information about productive remote teaching strategies now that  virtual learning has become the norm in many school districts.

However, Flanagan also acknowledged the strain online learning has placed on some students. “We are most concerned about our students who need us most,” Flanagan said. “Students with special education needs, students learning English and our most vulnerable students. We want them to be back in person to help support their needs.”