Kevin O’Leary, an English teacher at Morse High School, cheers to welcome students to their first day in the new high school. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

BATH — The first day of school on a Thursday in February amid a pandemic is unusual at best, but at the new Morse High School in Bath, it was cause for celebration.

Half of the study body streamed through the front doors on Wing Farm Parkway, gathering in the sunlit atrium to get their class schedules and directions to their homerooms. Students wandered past empty display cases and bare walls, still smelling faintly of wet paint, eager to settle into their new home.

The remaining students will begin classes at the new school on Friday. The students were split into two groups to reduce the number of people in the school at a time to mitigate the risk of transmitting COVID-19.

“It’s wild, this is so cool,” Soren Langore, a Morse High School junior, said when he walked through the front doors. “It looks like Bowdoin.”

“This is absolutely what you see in movies,” said Lily Cooper, a junior in the early childhood education program at the Bath Regional Career and Technical Center, also housed in the new building. “It’s beautiful.”

Morse High School Principal Eric Varney said he’s thrilled to be able to offer all students an updated facility with new technology. He pointed to the Promethean Boards, large interactive screens that replace projectors, mounted in every classroom.

“I’m thankful for both the taxpayers and donors that made this more than what we could’ve done based on a regular state project,” he said.

The state-funded $67.4 million of the $75.3 million cost; $7.2 million was paid locally through borrowing, with $700,000 earmarked from fundraising.

Carolyn Nichols, a biology teacher, leads a biology class in her new classroom Thursday morning. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

Varney said he’s eager to host varsity basketball games in the school’s new gym, something Morse High School wasn’t able to do in their old gym, fondly dubbed the “Pit,” due to a lack of space and seating. The gym floor of the Pit was surrounded by walls with little room on the sidelines. Seating in the gym was on balcony that looked over the gym floor.

“Our old gym facility dates back to the 1920s … and it wasn’t the facility those programs deserved,” Varney said. “It has been many decades since Morse has played a varsity-level basketball game in our school.”

Students and staff said they’ll miss certain things about the old building and they hope the school spirit embedded in the old school will still be found in their new building.

“I enjoyed the spirit week and I hope we can bring that to this school with the same spirit,” said Lucas Martin, a Morse High School junior. “The pep rallies in the Pit are going to be missed.”

“I think I’ll miss the Pit,” said Langore. “The old school was such a relic.”

“My grandfather went to the old school and there are so many generations that have gone there,” said Elliot Harkins, a Morse High School junior. “It holds a lot of history.”

Holly Lowe, president of the Morse Alumni Association, places trophies in the school’s display cases as students are given tours around the new school. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

“In my favorite teacher’s room there was a pole that we wrote all our names on and I was looking at it on one of the last days we were there and thought ‘Wow, we’re transferring our entire high school career into a new building,’” said Marissa Williams, a Morse High School senior. “This is going to be a big change, but a good change.”

Holly Bisson Lowe, president of the Morse Alumni Association, admitted was didn’t want a new school when the idea was first floated years ago because she didn’t want to let go of the original school. However, she said she recognizes today’s Morse High School students deserve the best facilities possible.

“I know this is the right thing to do, it’s just the hard thing to do,” said Lowe.

She said the alumni association wants to have more of a presence in the new building to ensure students remember that, although they’re in a new building, they’re part of a legacy spanning over a century.

“We’re a very traditional school and I think our biggest challenge will be figuring out how to make those traditions continue,” said Varney, a Morse High School alumnus. “It was time to move on, but that building will be missed.”

Varney reminded students of that history in his morning announcements: “The original Morse High School was built in 1904 on High Street. It was the finest school building in the state of Maine. Nearly a century later, I would argue that we once again have the finest school building in the state of Maine. I find myself wondering what the first students of our previous high school were thinking on their first day. If only they could see this building.”

Three students, Isaac Ensel, Isabel Strelneck and Thomas Ferolano, are making a documentary about the move to the new school. They’ve spent afterschool hours interviewing students, staff, and alumni about Morse for their documentary.

Strelneck said the documentary will focus on three themes: How Morse High School and the Morse community has changed over time, what sets Morse apart from other schools, and how traditions will be carried forward into the new school. A trailer for the documentary is available on their YouTube page, KillerFerns Productions.

“As an outsider, you can really see what makes Morse different,” said Ferolano. “There is a lot of love in this community, and we want to put a lot of love into this project.”

The original Morse High School was built in 1904 and named for businessman Charles Morse. It burned down in 1928 and the existing school was rebuilt on the same site in 1929. Additional classrooms and wings were later added during World War II, and again in 1969 and 1996.

The original school building will be handed over to the city this spring and later be redeveloped, though city officials aren’t entirely certain what the school will become. Marc Meyers, assistant Bath city manager, told The Times Record earlier this month that the old high school will most likely become “a mixed use of residential and commercial spaces along with a fire station,” though no final decisions have been made.

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