EDISON — When James Monroe Elementary students and staff return from winter break, they'll be learning inside the actual James Monroe building for the first time in more than 33 months.

Destroyed by a six-alarm fire in March 2014, the school on Sharp Road is scheduled to hold classes again on Jan. 3. Until then, crews will put the finishing touches on the new building, and teachers will make the transition from their current location at St. Cecelia's in the Iselin section of Woodbridge.

"The whole staff is very excited to come back," first-grade teacher Stephanie Lin told New Jersey 101.5. "We're nervous though, too, trying to get the rooms ready. But just coming home is a great feeling."

Substitutes are lined up at St. Cecelia's to take over for teachers who spend time during the school day at the new James Monroe building. Contractually, every teacher gets four visits to help with the move, at four hours apiece.

"It's coming along," said first-grade teacher Jennifer Altman. "It's hard to have things in two places and try to visualize it without it being here."

Altman's classroom is among several lined with unpacked boxes and bare walls that still need a teacher's special touch.

Students' desks and other furniture won't be arriving until Dec. 26, according to Superintendent Richard O'Malley.

"It's been a long three years and we've sort of taken a very tragic situation and progressed to what you see today, which is just a beautiful new building," O'Malley said.

Major upgrades include a second floor, plus a separate cafeteria and gymnasium. Prior to the fire, stretching and eating happened in the same spot. The building is at the same address, but with a larger footprint.

An open house is scheduled for parents and students on Dec. 17 so they have a better feel for the building ahead of the new year.

Greeting students as they walk in is a piece of the former brick exterior that survived the fire. The 'James Monroe School' sign preserves a memory of the school's original construction in the 1960s.

"My body remembers it," said Principal Lynda Zapoticzny, walking the new halls. "I'm doing the walk; it's like the same stride and the same amount of steps and I know exactly where I'm going."

Zapoticzny said the return to Sharp Road brings with it a different level of excitement for students who were enrolled at James Monroe in 2014, compared to the younger students who never knew the old building. She's interested in inviting back the students who have aged out of the school since the blaze, which was allegedly started by a cigarette that the school's head custodian threw in a trash can.

Jerome Higgins in 2014 pleaded guilty to smoking in public, a petty disorderly persons offense that was heard in Municipal Court. He was ordered to pay a $200 fine and court costs and the Board of Education did not pursue restitution payments against him.

In a letter to parents and guardians in November, O'Malley noted that not all students will be provided with transportation to and from the new building, as was the case before the fire. Because of the distance and unfortunate circumstances, every child currently has a ride to and from the Iselin location.

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.