LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — It will be a homecoming for students at Pinelands Regional School District this week when they return to the high school building, which was closed last year after safety concerns related to a large-scale renovation.
“The biggest thing is that everything has been inspected, and is ready and safe for students to be in the building,” Superintendent Melissa McCooley said this week as she walked through the building.
The school is speckled with wildcat pride: a large wildcat logo incorporated in the new terrazzo flooring greets students at the school’s entrance.
About 1,000 students will return Thursday for their first day of high school and for almost all of the students, it will be the first time they’ve ever attended school in the building — the senior class were 10th graders when the building closed.
Unlike previous years, the high school will house ninth graders, as well. They previously attended the junior high school with seventh- and eighth-grade students.
“The sports are here and we also have new course offerings through Ocean County College and Stockton (University), and we want to make sure the ninth graders can participate in those academies,” McCooley said.
The high school at Pinelands received more than just a fresh coat of paint since closing last year. New windows, doors and ceiling tiles were installed, lights were upgraded, all of the bathrooms were renovated and a new scoreboard was installed in the gym, said John Bellone, the school’s director of facilities.
He also pointed out a large, angled awning that was installed over the entrance — the junior high received a matching upgrade.
Other improvements included the replacement of portions of the brick façade, fire systems, and a staircase near the back of the building that was closed for safety reasons for several years, he said.
The biggest upgrade was the roof and HVAC work that initiated the closing of the building in the first place.
The renovations were completed as part of a $53 million bond referendum approved by voters in 2017. Work began that year but was halted after asbestos was found and a roofing nail fell on a student.
The district closed the high school for three months in late 2017 as a precaution, sending students to the junior high on split sessions and upsetting parents.
In early 2018, the district decided to close the high school for an entire school year to complete the work safely.
McCooley said that when the building opens, the project will finally be finished.
School board President Sue Ernst said she was “elated” to see the construction come to an end and the high school reopen.
“It’s been a difficult three years. We’ve had a lot of ups, a lot of downs, but I was there in 1979 when the school opened, and this is like reliving it,” Ernst said Friday.
She said she is grateful for all of the employees and others who have stepped up to make sure the project was completed.
“It’s a great culmination,” Ernst said.
Students might notice that the “Commons” atrium area has a fresh coat of paint and scaled back foliage.
McCooley said they decided to keep some of the student artwork in the building, but wanted a fresh start in the atrium, where students will get to decide how the area is decorated.
“We wanted to just start over,” she said.
McCooley said the architect will be at orientation Wednesday to answer any questions. She said that the administration has been conscious of the concerns of the community.
“We’ve really put a lot of information out on our website. We’ve had it at board meetings,” McCooley said. “It’s important that we have to stop with conspiracy theories, ask questions, get answers and move forward.”