Educators in Vermont's largest city celebrated both the opening of a temporary high school Tuesday and news they and colleagues will soon be able to access the COVID-19 vaccine.
The new Burlington High School facility is downtown, in a former Macy's department store building.
You can still see the remnants of the old Macy's signs. Inside, some classroom walls remind you of which products used to be sold there — evidenced by remaining Levi's and Michael Kors signs — and the escalator led to Tuesday's ribbon-cutting in the former jewelry section.
"I'm definitely excited," sophomore Daniel Gibson said of the new school building opening this week. "It's just harder to do school online."
Gibson and his fellow students haven't been in the city's regular high school since last March.
First, the pandemic closed it to in-person learning. Then, right before this academic year, word came that potentially harmful chemicals linked to old construction materials were found in the air inside.
That combination meant far more remote learning for BHS kids than just about anywhere else.
The school district said getting a safe space for in-person classes has been a priority.
"Yes, there is the importance of understanding content in the classroom, but there's also that human connection piece and just growing through discourse and conversation," interim BHS Principal Lauren McBride said of the value of in-person learning.
McBride joined school district representatives and elected officials in thanking the many people who worked tirelessly to open the new school building.
Another dose of good news came Tuesday from Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont.
"We're on pace to be in a very good place by late spring or early summer," the governor said after announcing all Vermont teachers, school staff, and employees of child care centers will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines starting next week.
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The expansion of the vaccinations became possible thanks to more doses coming into Vermont from the federal pharmacy program and from the rollout of the new Johnson & Johnson single-dose shot, the Scott administration explained.
"There is, now, clear light at the end of the pandemic tunnel," said Mike Smith, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services.
Educators will be joined in the vaccine eligibility pool on March 8 by people with high-risk health conditions, and by certain public safety employees who did not previously qualify for vaccines — such as 911 operators and correctional facility staffers.
Educators praised Tuesday's announcement from Gov. Scott.
"Nobody wants to see students return to the state's classrooms more than teachers, paraeducators, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, school nurses and administrators," Don Tinney, a high school English teacher who serves as president of the Vermont-NEA, said in a written statement. "But, as we've said all along, this can only happen when it is demonstrably safe to do so. Vaccinating school employees is a big step in the right direction."
Teachers in the new Burlington High School also welcomed the news.
"I'm looking forward to getting the vaccine," said Sen Fleming, a BHS social studies teacher.
"It's another layer of protection is what it is," added Ronald Buck, a physical education and health teacher at BHS.
"I'm so excited about the vaccine," said music teacher Billy Ray Poli. "Of course, we're still going to be following the protocols to a T. We're going to sanitize. We're going to do all this."
As for the former Macy's building students start coming to this week, it's just temporary while the city shops for a permanent high school.
"There are a lot of social connections and friendships that were lost over the last year that will kind of have to be rebuilt," student Daniel Gibson predicted.