December 13, 2012

School copes with first-grader's death

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Staff Writer

BENTON -- Classmates of a first-grade girl who died this week of illness are coping with the tragedy, while state health officials recommended members of the school community take typical steps to avoid the spread of germs.

"The Benton Elementary School family has experienced the unthinkable," Principal Suanne Giorgetti wrote Wednesday in a letter to parents that described staff efforts to address the death.

"The cause of death of the student was a typical respiratory tract problem," said School Administrative District 49 Superintendent Dean Baker, who did not release the girl's name or illness. The other towns in the Fairfield-based district are Albion, Benton and Clinton.

Dr. Steve Diaz is the chief medical officer at MaineGeneral Health, which employs the district's physician, Dr. Michael Clark.

While the cause of death has not been confirmed, Diaz said, "given the clinical scenario, it does not seem like the school should close down."

Giorgetti's letter said there is no reason to think a contagious illness will put other pupils at risk, and he described the efforts of the school to cope with the loss.

The school faculty met on Wednesday to develop a coordinated response, including an attempt to maintain "a sense of normalcy" for the benefit of the students, according to Giorgetti.

School counselors made themselves available to students throughout the school, "especially the students in that first grade along with the classrooms of her siblings," Giorgetti wrote.

The letter encouraged parents to talk openly with their children and to notify the school to coordinate emotional support if needed.

District administrators asked the Maine Center for Disease Control to review the case before the letter was sent, according to Baker.

"Our concern was whether this was a contagious disease that could pose a threat to others," Baker said.

Baker said the district learned of the girl's death on Tuesday and contacted the center immediately.

Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, said that, as at any other time, she recommends that children who are sick stay home and seek a medical provider.

"The most important thing is for us to make sure that we practice good hand washing and take the same precautions that we would ordinarily on a day-to-day basis," Pinette said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling -- 861-9287


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