Earlier this month, students in Burlington, Vermont, returned to in-person learning at their high school after many months away. Photos of their joyful reunion went viral on social media because these teenagers were dealing with more than the standard COVID disruptions: They were returning to school in an abandoned Macy’s department store.
Slate is on record with the opinion that such mall-schools are an inventive solution that deserves recognition. In this case, the students were moved to a Macy’s in an outdoor pedestrian mall in downtown Burlington after officials found high levels of toxic polychlorinated bipehnyls (PCBs) at their high school. The Macy’s building underwent a 10-week renovation, and students expect to be there about three years as the district sorts out the issues with the old building. During the pandemic, students will attend classes two days a week, half of the student body at a time. It’s an odd setup in an odd place in an odd time. But Burlington students have expressed relief to finally be somewhere they can be together. And some of them, rightfully, think it’s pretty dang cool to go to school in an abandoned mall.
To get a proper sense of what high school feels like in an old shopping mall, Slate spoke with four students—seniors Wyatt, 18; Bernadette, 17; and Adam, 18; and junior Grace, 16—about their first week back.
When you first heard that you were going to be going to school in Macy’s, what did you think?
Grace: I was kind of excited. But I also wondered, How are they going to pull that off? Because BHS is a very big school; it’s six different buildings. And Macy’s has two floors.
Wyatt: I think I first heard that Macy’s was a possibility in around October. And for whatever reason, my first thought was like, Man, there’s got to be some good senior pranks that we could do at Macy’s… We have access to escalators now—there’s just a lot of crazy things you can do with escalators. So there’s definitely going to be some creative minds that come together. There’s only like four running escalators in the state of Vermont. And it’s pretty special that we get two of them.
What was it like walking on that first day?
Wyatt: It was very exciting. They were playing some rock as we walked in. Our mascot is the seahorse, and that was dancing. What’s cool about the Macy’s is that instead of six different buildings, it’s two floors. So even though it’s only at half capacity right now, due to COVID, it feels like everyone’s just in one spot, which is really cool after being away from school for so long.
Grace: I walked in and there were a bunch of students getting their temperature checked. And [asked] screening questions and whatnot. And we were trying to get to homeroom, and I saw a bunch of students who were really lost. There’s so many different corners. It’s like a maze. There were signs, but they weren’t too helpful. I remember just feeling very lost and overwhelmed. It gets easier every time I go back, but I don’t have it completely down yet.
Adam: The first day was just super strange. You see your friends that you really haven’t seen in a year. There were a lot of elbow bumps and foot taps. [And] I realized it wasn’t [just] about seeing my friends. It was about seeing people that I don’t know. Seeing random people, interacting with them. It felt really exhilarating.
Bernadette: They did such an amazing job transforming the place. And just the energy was great. The teachers were pumped. Because a lot of underclassmen will like not turn on their cameras, so it was a lot of [excitement over] seeing faces. Teachers were so happy. As a part of National Honor Society, we were in charge of doing tours on those two first days here. And I felt like all the tour guides not knowing where we were going made everything kind of silly. You realize how big a joke it is. Later in the day, when they were announcing our lunch, they said, “Lunch one, please come to the Michael Kors cafeteria.” It was like, wow, that is my life now.
Are there any hints of when it used to be a Macy’s?
Grace: Going into the building, nothing really seemed familiar to me, probably because I haven’t been there for so long. But it’s cool seeing imprints of the old mall left behind. Like, our library shelves still have brands like Calvin Klein on them. I’m glad they didn’t erase all traces of the old building.
Wyatt: I’ve heard some people that were familiar with the old Macy’s say like, “oh, the chorus room is where the old shoe department was.” There’s the same carpeting and same light installations that they used to display things. And there’s still the same wallpaper that they had back in the day, like Macy’s Day Parade wallpaper. There’s still signs that say fitting rooms. They’re right next to the gym, so I think they made some of them into bathrooms.
Bernadette: When you walk around the Macy’s, you’d go “Oh, I used to buy jewelry here.” Because of, like, the specific carpet. But it’s starting to not feel like a Macy’s, and more like our school.
Has there any part of this that makes going to school harder?
Grace: I miss being able to look out windows whenever I wanted. Back at BHS almost every classroom had a window. It’s [also] very loud because like the walls that make up each classroom don’t reach the ceiling. And most of them don’t have doors either. So you can hear the neighboring classrooms and conversations in the hallway. It’s very distracting. [And] speaking with masks, it’s harder to hear people. Yesterday, my English teacher was reading something and I could not hear what he was saying.
Wyatt: There’s a section of the science department that’s right next to the band room. And if they get going on the wrong song, it’s over. That is obviously a major flaw. [But] I personally kind of like it in some respects, when it’s white noise. Because you just hear all these voices and stuff. It’s very different than just being at home during quarantine.
Are there already jokes about the Macy’s?
Wyatt: The joke is just so obvious. We’re going to school in a Macy’s—people will just say, you know, yeah, “I’m graduating from Macy’s this year.” It’s just such a funny thing in itself that we don’t need to make any further jokes about it.
Grace: Yeah, I’ve seen people say, like, “Macy’s Class of blah, blah, blah.”
Wyatt: There’s a shirt that says “mall rats” on it. Some teacher made a shirt, and they’re selling it.
How have people in your life responded to the news?
Grace: I feel like if they are jealous, they won’t admit it, because of pride. But they know it’s pretty cool.
Wyatt: We’ve had to be online for most of the year. We spent a little bit of time in the middle school, but that wasn’t, like, our place. So it’s very nice to have something like this to call home, even if it is a department store.
Adam: I think the initial reaction is, like, laughter. With parents and adults, the interaction is always like, “So you’re going to Macy’s now.” And I started to get frustrated. It’s been long enough. Kids just wanted to go to school. Nobody cares if there’s an escalator or silly pictures of brands on the walls.
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