Tiny Warner college didn’t comply with COVID precautions before outbreak

  • Students at Magdalen College carried a large wooden cross side by side without masks during an Easter event on campus last week. The state has traced 16 COVID cases back to the small college in Warner. —Facebook

Monitor staff
Published: 4/8/2021 3:56:28 PM

Until recently, Magdalen College was a quiet and unobtrusive fixture in Warner’s community.

The small, Catholic school which sits on 135 acres of pine forest and open fields rarely caught the attention of the public. There are no loud parties – alcohol and romantic displays of affection are not permitted on campus. Music, the student handbook says, should always be played at “a moderate volume.” Instead the administration encouraged students to attend Friday night lectures or discuss fundamental questions from class.

The private school was thrust into the spotlight this week after the Department of Health reported that at least 16 cases of COVID-19 in Warner could be traced back to the school’s public Easter celebrations. Photos posted onto the school’s Facebook page showed about a dozen students carrying a large wooden cross side by side without masks. Other photos showed students at Thursday Mass unmasked.

The state Department of Health and Human Services is currently investigating the incident to determine the extent of the outbreak.

“We’re working closely with the college on complying with public health guidance that’s already in place and having them make sure it’s being followed on campus,” said Jake Leon, a spokesperson for DHHS.

Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards has worked with many universities and colleges in the state to help them develop appropriate COVID protocols. She said she can’t think of a school with looser COVID protocols than Magdalen. Unlike all of the other schools she’s worked with, the college did not have any strategy to test students for COVID-19. The mask and social distancing requirements were rarely followed.

“They had some basic protocols in place,” she said. “They didn’t have particularly good compliance with those protocols based on what we’ve learned from our conversations with them, and they’ve been lucky.”

Eric Buck, the college’s interim president, did not return requests for comment.

About a month earlier, many students celebrated an event called Sophomore Dinner, which is held every year to honor faculty members. Photos posted on Facebook showed students and faculty dancing, singing and eating at the Great Gatsby-themed dinner with no visible concern about wearing masks or social distancing. The month before, a video of students singing shoulder to shoulder without masks in front of an abortion clinic in Concord was posted to Facebook.

Since the outbreak, Edwards said students have been attending classes remotely from their dorm rooms and masses have been closed to visitors.

Now, some fear the college’s decision to flout COVID precautions has endangered their community. Over the last two weeks, the town has reported 27 new cases of COVID-19. It now has the second highest per capita rate of COVID-19 in New Hampshire, only after Durham.

Abigail Thorpe, who cares for older adults in Warner, fears how the outbreak might impact the town’s care facilities, especially Pine Rock Manor, a local nursing home that was devastated by a COVID outbreak in the fall.

“I hope our town can bounce back from the recent unfortunate events,” she said. “They believe that God will protect them from the virus, but they forget that they hold the power in their hands.”

Ken Bartholomew, a school board member in Warner, said he always worries when there are outbreaks in the town, even if they are seemingly isolated to one facility. A couple of weeks after the nursing home outbreak, he watched the virus seep into the broader community.

“It took about two weeks but then we saw an increase in the town numbers, including my wife actually,” he said.




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