WINDHAM — School officials are at odds with a parent concerning how the COVID-19 outbreak started at Windham High School.
The School District linked the outbreak to a “social gathering” at former School Board member Thomas Murray’s home and later suspended students who attended the birthday party from athletic events and required those them to do community service.
The athletic suspensions were later overturned, but Murray is still fighting the community service requirement and the stigma of hosting the party.
“They are making a very big leap to suggest students somehow contracted COVID-19” at his home “with absolutely no proof,” Murray said.
In total, 18 Windham High School students would contract COVID-19, according to the district. Murray and his family all tested negative.
Murray said his 16-year-old daughter invited 15 friends over for a surprise birthday party for another friend Aug. 31.
Days later, one of the teenagers who attended the party tested positive for COVID-19. That student was ultimately part of the outbreak that delayed the start of in-person instruction at the high school, according to multiple parents whose children attended the party.
Murray called Superintendent Richard Langlois on Sept. 7, shortly after Langlois received his first email warning that students were potentially exposed to COVID-19 on Sept. 6, according to emails obtained by The Eagle-Tribune.
The district worked with the state Department of Health and Human Services attempting to contact trace and find the full extent of the outbreak just before school was set to start Sept. 9, according to emails.
Not knowing the extent of the spread of the virus, school officials postponed in-person instruction on the eve of the first day of school. Students attended their first two weeks of school remotely.
Sports were also delayed until students returned.
As of Friday afternoon, there were eight active cases in town, including two at the elementary schools.
The School District and DHHS did not respond when asked if the elementary school cases were connected to the high school.
Murray described the party as typical. The teens watched movies and ate cake. He and his wife were home and there were no drugs or alcohol involved, he said.
“These are all young kids who have hung out all summer, yes in smaller groups but they have still been interacting with each other,” Murray said.
But about midnight, Murray said he had to call police because 14 teenagers came to his home uninvited, trying to interrupt the party. He did not know the teenagers and did not know if they were from Windham, he said.
During the birthday party, he observed some teenagers wearing masks and others staying farther away from the group. He said his 4,400-square-foot home provided more than enough space for 15 people.
“The individuals who were unwanted did not have masks,” Murray said. “They came in contact with several of the guests.”
In New Hampshire, gatherings of that size and nature are allowed since Gov. Chris Sununu’s stay-at-home order expired June 15.
But because of the pandemic, Sununu and health officials across the country suggest taking measures to distance from other people, including staying 6 feet apart and wearing a mask when that’s not possible to decrease the spread of the virus.
The Windham students who contracted the virus had “various social, sporting, and other activity connections to one another and the community that are concerning for potential exposure to COVID-19,” an official from DHHS told Langlois on Sept. 8.
In the emails obtained by The Eagle-Tribune, between Sept. 6 and Sept. 9, there were no direct connections to the party made by DHHS.
The School District released a statement Sept. 11 that said the outbreak was due to a “social gathering” four days after the district first knew of the party, according to the emails.
On Sept. 24, multiple students who attended the party were suspended from one athletic game and asked to perform three hours of community service, according to multiple parents.
The letter sent to students explaining the athletic suspension and community service requirements said they were suspended because police “broke up” the party the students were attending, according to the parents.
“This notice is to confirm that (students’ names) has been suspended for one (1) NHIAA interscholastic athletic event and will be required to perform 3 hrs. of community service for violating the NHIAA Student Athlete Code of Ethics due to (their) presence at a gathering in which the Windham Police Department was summoned to disperse all attendees,” stated letters to parents by Athletic Director Michael McCaffrey dated Sept. 24. “Due to the resulting health crisis and DHHS contact tracing investigation (their) presence was confirmed.”
However, Murray said police did not break up the birthday party. He said police ensured the unwanted teenagers didn’t disturb the invited guests, Murray said. The Police Department confirmed this.
“The police department was unaware of the school district’s letter or suspension of any students,” Capt. Michael Caron wrote in a statement. “The information in the letter pertaining to the actions of the police department were factually incorrect and we notified the superintendent’s office of such. The police department also never disclosed any information with the school district on who may have been present at the incident in question.”
The police report has not been made public because the incident is still under investigation, Caron said.
The athletic suspension was reversed, according to a letter sent by Principal Stephen Sierpina dated Sept. 29.
The students were still required to perform community service at the time of publication.
“Which is still unacceptable,” Murray said.
The School District has not responded to multiple requests for comment.