Westbrook High School finally will reopen to students next week, four months after an electrical fire over the summer delayed a full return to in-person learning.

The building sustained significant water damage during the July fire, and students spent the first three months of the year in remote classes. That decision was a blow to high schoolers who spent the previous year in a hybrid model because of the pandemic. School officials announced the return Monday in a video message to parents and students.

“Our WHS staff and faculty deserve a round of applause for once again adapting and providing a quality education to our high school students,” co-principal Wendy Harvey said in the video. “Their perseverance is an example for all. And to our students and families, we are overjoyed to make this announcement. We are happy to have you back in our building, and thank you for your cooperation and patience at this difficult time.”

Charity Hirst welcomed the news.

Her daughter, Lilia Hirst, 14, was in seventh grade when the pandemic forced her classes to go remote for the first time. She had a hybrid schedule during her eighth-grade year, and her mom said she was looking forward to spending five days a week at the high school. But the fire forced her to start her freshman year online instead.

Hirst said Lilia is a good student but struggled to feel motivated by remote classes, and she dropped out of band without the promise of performances or rehearsals.

“It was no fun playing the trombone in front of your computer,” Charity Hirst said.

She wishes the district had found an alternative to a full-time remote schedule, and she was frustrated with what she felt was a lack of information about other options. But she was glad Lilia joined the color guard over the summer. The group practiced outside, participated in band camp in the school parking lot and performed weekly shows. The season ended recently, and her mom said Lilia was the first person to sign up for the winter team.

Ceiling tiles were removed from a hallway at Westbrook High School, seen Sept. 1, because of a fire and subsequent water damage that closed the school and forced students back to remote learning. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

She said her teenager is excited and maybe a little apprehensive to walk into the high school next week. It’s the first day all over again, after all.

“She’s a high school freshman who’s never actually been in high school in person,” Hirst said.

School officials said teachers and staff will be back in the building this week and next to prepare for students. Juniors and seniors will come in for orientation on Dec. 1, and then they will have remote learning Dec. 2-3 while freshmen and sophomores have their own orientation. All students will be back Dec. 6.

“Freshmen and sophomores need two days for orientation because most of them have had very little experience in our building,” co-principal Patrick Colgan said in the video message.

The damage that closed the school occurred in a July 25 fire that broke out early that morning on the third floor. An investigation revealed the cause was electrical in nature, likely due to the improper use of an extension cord with a window air conditioner, according to the Westbrook Fire Department. A sprinkler system prevented the fire from spreading, but water cascaded down to the lower floors.

Superintendent Peter Lancia said the third-floor art room where the fire started is still closed. And a few classrooms on the first floor will be blocked off. But most of the building will be open.

Some programs, such as special education and alternative education, have been operating out of the Westbrook Community Center. That arrangement will continue for now. The Westbrook Regional Vocational Center, which was not affected, also remains open.

Lancia does not know the final cost of the repairs yet, but the insurance company has estimated more $1 million in damage. The district applied for and received more than $500,000 from the state’s revolving renovation fund as an emergency loan. That program requires only about half the money to be repaid. The superintendent said Westbrook also has about $700,000 left from renovations a few years ago at Saccarappa Elementary School and Westbrook Middle School, and he hopes to tap into that money as well.

“We’re just so grateful to everyone taking on this project with a sense of priority and really pushing to get this work done, especially at a time when construction projects are slow because of the availability of workers and materials,” Lancia said. “I’m really pleased that everybody prioritized this and prioritized our kids.”


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