Recessed lighting bounces off shiny white tiles, bright red carpet marks areas where dresses and suits were sold, and brand names like Burberry and Ralph Lauren remain on display. 

The Macy’s makeover for Burlington High School is on a fast track — the district has just 10 weeks to complete the renovation — and some legacy decor from the old department store doesn’t bother school officials. 

“We want to pay homage to the fact that this was Macy’s,” said acting Principal Lauren McBride, who gave a tour to local media Thursday. 

Superintendent Tom Flanagan bills the emergency move as part of the high school’s “generational” challenge: the global pandemic and the displacement of students from the high school building. The facility was closed after dangerously high levels of PCBs, cancer-causing chemicals, were found on the grounds.

Burlington High School also abruptly lost principal Noel Green earlier this month. In a resignation letter to Flanagan, Green said the school board was “overbearing” and didn’t support his leadership or the teachers. 

While schools in the Burlington district have been able to make an almost complete return to in-person classes, thanks to relatively low Covid-19 transmission, high school students have been stuck with at-home Zoom classes because of the contamination issue. 

The isolation became so severe some families pushed for their students to return to the PCB-contaminated building, out of fear that the forced social seclusion would do more damage to their students’ mental health than the cancer-causing chemicals. (BHS did eventually organize in-person learning opportunities at Edmunds Middle School.) 

When the district had an opportunity to lease the former Macy’s building downtown, officials jumped on it. 

Tight budget and timeline 

Dave Farrington, owner of Farrington Construction, is leading the renovation project. Under ordinary circumstances, rehabbing a department store space into a functioning high school would take six months. The project timeline has been compressed to 10 weeks. 

“We’re working seven days a week in here now,” Farrington said. “We’ve got a lot of guys here. There were over 60 guys here today.” 

The construction firm is building about 60 makeshift classrooms on two floors divided by an escalator. 

There is no room for delays, Farrington said. Construction is set to end March 1, and students are expected to move in March 4.

When students walk in the main entrance of the building, they’ll see a traditional front office. Hallways split around the office space, revealing rows of classrooms boxed out by soon-to-be-finished drywall. 

General contractor Dave Farrington points out details on the plans for the former Macy’s store’s transformation into the temporary home of Burlington High. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

While some classrooms have walls that extend all the way up to the high department-store ceilings, most do not, leaving a section of open space from where the wall ends to the ceiling height. Most classrooms couldn’t be fully closed in without cutting off the building’s ventilation system, said Marty Spaulding, the district’s director of property services. 

Tearing out the old ceiling would have added $2.2 million to a project that’s already on a tight budget, Farrington said.

About half the classrooms won’t have doors, Spaulding said, because the school couldn’t afford them at $1,200 a pop.

“We were originally not putting the doors in any of the classrooms, but we made some compromises,” Spaulding said.

The price tag for the initial construction costs is $3.5 million. Gov. Phil Scott has proposed that the state fund the rehab. The Vermont Legislature is expected to take up the appropriation this session. 

It’s only temporary

The former Macy’s is intended to be a temporary home for Burlington High students, said Russ Elek, a spokesperson for the district. Beyond the $3.5 million it will take to outfit the Macy’s building, the district has signed a three-and-a-half-year lease for $1.2 million annually. 

The lease could be extended, if more time is needed to figure out what to do with the PCB-contaminated high school building. Elek said while students are learning in the new location, the old Burlington High would be extensively tested to determine if PCBs could be removed from the building’s floors, walls and ceilings and surrounding grounds. 

The district hopes to finish the testing by July, so it can plan either to renovate the old building or identify another long-term solution. 

The rental agreement benefits the owner of the building, Don Sinex, the developer behind the long-stalled downtown CityPlace project. The former Macy’s has been sitting empty for months and will be razed as part of “phase three” in the latest iteration of the CityPlace development, according to Farrington, who is one of three new local developers to join Sinex on the project. 

What about security?

Security has been one of the most frequently discussed concerns about the new BHS location in downtown Burlington.

Security concerns are top of mind for students, Nora Jacobson, editor in chief of the BHS Register newspaper, told Acting Principal McBride on Thursday’s tour of the former Macy’s. Jacobsen and other student journalists have been covering the BHS building transition. 

“I was talking to my friend and one of our earliest memories was when we were in first grade and being in a closet, silent, during an active shooter drill. And then the police officer began lecturing the class, telling us that if we made a noise we could die,” Jacobsen said. “And now that’s so, like, in our brain, it’s really hard to do this transition. How would you speak to everyone who is experiencing those fears?” 

Lauren McBride, acting principal of Burlington High School, tours the former Macy’s department store on Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

McBride said administrators and school resource officers have taken security into account and are creating plans to address it. The front doors will be locked during the day; anyone hoping to enter will need to buzz in. 

“It’s on the forefront of our minds as well,” McBride said. 

Security has also been a concern for teachers, said Andrew Styles, Burlington Education Association president. The lack of doors has raised questions about how classrooms would go into lock down to prevent an intruder from harming students. 

Doors have been strategically placed in the building to enable teachers to lockdown classrooms, McBride said. In some cases, a set of two classrooms next to one another could have a door so that two classes could be barricaded in one room. In some cases, entire wings could be closed in the event of a lockdown. 

Styles said while teachers are eager to get back into the classroom, they are concerned about noise levels in classrooms that aren’t fully walled off from one another. 

Noise levels may be a challenge, McBride said, but not all students will be in the new building at once. Students will be split into two groups and alternate two days in-person, two days remote, each week. The fifth day will be all-remote. 

“There’s communication that’s happening weekly with our faculty and staff about just what’s happening here,” McBride said. Burlington High has “lead teachers” for every department who will convey concerns and questions from colleagues to administrators about how the transition will work. 

Emails with video tours of the new building have been sent to students in an effort to familiarize them with the space. 

“I feel like the more transparent and the more information we’ve given them, the concerns have quieted and now it’s more focusing on just that transition and instruction,” McBride said. “We have a home now. … It’s like a rebirth for us.” 

Less surprising than it might have been

The former Macy’s will have most of the features of a typical school. There is a large room set aside for chorus and band practice. An open space for the library has been established on the second floor. 

Food will be made at the old Burlington High (the kitchen has been cleared for PCB contaminants) and delivered to the new building. A cafeteria has been set up under a shiny, chrome MICHAEL KORS sign, still attached to one of the original walls. 

While the department store turned high school is a novel situation, students and teachers say they’re desperate for some level of normalcy. 

Junior Rebecca Cunningham said students were surprised at first by the move to the former Macy’s, but now many are excited at the prospect of escaping near-total isolation. 

“It’s taken a while for people to come around to the idea, but I think people are just accepting it as the new normal,” Cunningham said. “With everything going on this year, Covid and the election, there’s been so many surprises that ending up in a Macy’s is not as big of a surprise as it could have been.” 

English Teacher Beth Fialko-Casey said she’s excited to engage directly with students through in-person learning. It has been difficult to connect and to put students at ease over Zoom. She can’t put a hand on a student’s shoulder to comfort them through challenging material, or ask them to stay after class to ensure they’re getting the help they need. 

As for the concerns with doors, security and potentially noisy classrooms, she said she trusts the administration will troubleshoot those issues with teachers. As one of the lead teachers who has been communicating with administrators about her colleagues’ concerns and questions, she said she’s been reassured by the leadership. 

Now, she hopes teachers can make the most of the situation. 

“We can come together around Macy’s, and really temper anxieties and lean into what could be like the most absurd, hilarious, creative, inventive era in BHS history,” Fialko-Casey said.

“I want the lingerie department, science can have the men’s department, and we want photoshoots on the escalator,” she said. “This should be a joyful, if ridiculous, experience. And we should all lean into it and go for it.” 

Construction continues as the former Macy’s department store is transformed into the temporary home of Burlington High School. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca...