'Somber' students return after flu outbreak

Laurence Manning Academy returned to the routine of learning Monday, albeit with a subdued mood after a swine flu outbreak closed the school for three days and might have contributed to the death of a fifth-grader.

A funeral service for Ashlie Pipkin, 11, of Sumter was held at the school gymnasium Saturday. An avid softball player, Pipkin came down with flu-like symptoms Sept. 21 and died on the way from Sumter to Palmetto Health Richland in Columbia on Wednesday.

Results of an autopsy are expected to be released today, but state health officials have said a preliminary test indicated Ashlie had contracted flu before developing pneumonia. Almost all of the flu virus showing up these days is the H1N1 strain commonly referred to as swine flu.

Before Ashlie's death, Laurence Manning had closed for the final three days of the week. Early last week, 287 of the 1,010 students and several teachers at the private school in Manning were absent, many of them with flu-like symptoms, said headmaster Spencer Jordan.

When the school reopened Monday, the absentees were down to about 100, Jordan said. While administrators wanted to get back to the task of learning, they didn't treat it like any other day. The upper grades started with morning assemblies aimed at helping students deal with fear and mourning.

After the assemblies, grief counselors were available. The fifth-graders broke up into small groups to talk with counselors, Jordan said. Many worked on cards to be sent to Ashlie's family.

"A lot of people are scared, as I am," Jordan said. "We wanted to talk with them and help separate fact from fiction."

In the vast majority of cases, swine flu symptoms have been less severe than regular seasonal flu. Deaths are rare, but the H1N1 virus has contributed to the deaths of at least one other youngster and three adults in the state in the past two months, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The assemblies also stressed the keys to slowing the spread of any virus - frequent hand-washing, proper cough technique and the importance of not sharing food or drinks.

School officials paid to have the facility disinfected last week, even though health officials say that isn't necessary. Also, hand-disinfectant dispensers were installed at several locations in the school, Jordan said.

The other important caution is for those infected to stay at home until 24 hours after flu-related fever has passed. Some parents called Monday to say they felt safer holding their children out of school one more day, Jordan said.

The older students "seemed to understand the seriousness of this," Jordan said. "In the fifth grade, the mood is somber, as you might expect."