Students filled the hallways of their newly rebuilt elementary school in New Jersey for the first time Tuesday, reveling in a brand-new cafeteria and gym, nearly three years after their old school building burned to the ground in a devastating fire.
The James Monroe Elementary School in Edison burned on a cold Saturday in March 2015 after investigators said a custodian carelessly tossed a lit cigarette. Since then, the 470 students from kindergarten through fifth grade have been bused to school, first at Middlesex County College and then at the former St. Cecelia School in the nearby Iselin section of Woodbridge.
But as the teachers' T-shirts said Tuesday, there's no place like home.
"Our journey is over, we can relax and enjoy the moment and become a school again,' said principal Lynda Zapoticzny.
Superintendent Richard O'Malley said the students were "very excited to have their own space to eat in instead of being in their classroom all day."
"So although the weather was dreary outside, it was very joyous inside," he added.
A time-lapse video shows the progress over the 19 months it took the build the new school, which is 50 percent larger than the old school due to the fact that it now has two floors. The new James Monroe School cost more than $20 million, most of which was paid for by insurance. The building, unlike the previous school, does have a sprinkler system.
Students lined up at the door when school started Tuesday, excited to get inside.
"It feels really good," said Murchhona Dasgupta, 10. "It's so spacious and different."
"This teaches me you don't get to have everything you want in life and even if you do, you'll lose, just like we lost the school back in 2014," said Matthew Mekhanik, 10.
James Monroe Elementary is the first new school in Edison in 30 years. It also has emergency generators, the only one in the district that does, and can be used as a community shelter in case of a weather emergency.
While a prosecutor's investigation concluded a cigarette discarded by the school's custodian of the time probably caused the fire, there was never enough evidence to take him to court.