Repairs at Westbrook High School due to fire damage that occurred this summer are expected to take three to four months to be completed, the superintendent said Wednesday.

Students in ninth and tenth grades had their first day of school Wednesday, while juniors and seniors will begin Thursday. Students are starting the year remotely because of the fire damage, and there’s no specific timeline for when they may be able to return to in-person learning, though as repairs are completed in different sections of the building it’s possible some students could be brought back.

The school experienced significant water damage from the July 25 electrical fire, which has lead to a disappointing and heartbreaking start to the school year, said Superintendent Peter Lancia, especially after students spent last year in hybrid learning and so many were looking forward to a return to full in-person school.

“Going back full-time has been our focus for six to nine months of planning,” Lancia said. “There was such hope. It was heartbreaking. I never realized when there’s that kind of loss of a place, it’s the same kind of emotional reaction as when there’s another loss, like a personal loss. It’s our school and our workplace, but it felt like it was our home and there’s a lot of grief that goes with an event like that.”

Teachers and staff have been working to offer some in-person opportunities for students despite the damage, Lancia said. On Wednesday, ninth and tenth graders were on campus for class meetings, laptop distributions and social activities using the gym, which was not affected, and outdoor spaces.

While most athletic teams have already been meeting for about two weeks, Westbrook High Co-Principal Wendy Harvey said opportunities to join sports teams have been extended and students are being encouraged to participate in sports and activities. “The big message today was to get involved and find a sport or activity to get connected with,” Harvey said. “We don’t want you to be isolated or lonely.”

Co-Principal Wendy Harvey, who was at Westbrook High School on Wednesday, says she hopes that construction to fix the damage will be finished by the week after Thanksgiving. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Juniors and seniors will have the same opportunities Thursday. Next week, students will meet their teachers face-to-face on Tuesday and Wednesday before starting classes remotely at the end of the week.

Remote learning will look similar to last year but with some improvements. All students will be provided laptops and internet hot spots if needed and every course will be expected to be set up on Google classroom. Classes will be taught in real time, or synchronously, as opposed to last year when students took a mix of synchronous and asynchronous classes.

Lancia said he did not have a dollar figure on the cost of the damage Wednesday, but it will be considerable. The damage from the actual fire, which the Westbrook Fire Department determined was likely due to the improper use of an extension cord with a window air conditioner, was minimal but there is significant water damage.

The fire broke out on the third floor and in the center part of the building, which is the oldest part, and water cascaded down into the lower floors. The damage includes electrical wires and light fixtures, drywall that needs to be repaired and furniture that must be replaced.

Before making the decision to start the year remotely, the school explored the possibility of using other buildings in the city but there was no one space that could accommodate the school’s population of about 700 students, or even an entire grade.

“Recreating a school environment in a space that’s not built for a school is not that easy,” Harvey said. “I think sometimes people oversimplify what school looks like but trying to set up internet connectivity in a space that isn’t designed for it, that’s really hard. Trying to set up food service in a space that isn’t designed for it is hard. Every time we came up with an idea the idea was a no.”

Damage from the fire and water includes electrical wires and light fixtures, drywall that needs to be repaired and furniture that must be replaced. The fire broke out on the third floor and in the center part of the building, and water cascaded down into the lower floors.  Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The high school hopes to be able to start bringing students back as sections of the building are able to reopen, but it depends on the speed at which the work is done and whether the building is approved for occupancy, Lancia said. In the meantime, some programs such as special education and alternative education have moved to the Westbrook Community Center. The Westbrook Regional Vocational Center, which was not affected, also remains open.

“It’s been a hard couple of months since July,” Lancia said. “The staff has a great attitude and they’re going to make everything they can right for the kids.”


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