Newport Officials: Teacher Died From Undisclosed Illness

Newport — A Richards Elementary School teacher who died unexpectedly of an undisclosed illness last week, causing the school district to issue notifications to families.

School officials have been told by the Department of Health and Human Services that the cause of Elaine Sawyer’s death, which has not been made public, poses no health risk to students or the community.

“There are not, and were not, public health recommendations (action) for this situation,” Chris Adamski, Bureau Chief for Infectious Disease for the state, said this week. “There is no public health threat to the school or community.”

Adamski said she was prompted to issue a statement to the school district after receiving phone calls from a parent and health care professional about the risk of meningitis in the community.

Adamski said privacy laws prohibit her from discussing details of individual cases that are referred to her office. She did, however, state that Sawyer’s death was not caused by meningitis.

The school district notified families Nov. 20 with a message that said Sawyer was “gravely ill.”

A day later, the district sent a second message to parents that read: “Please be aware that we have continued to communicate with health care professionals and they have indicated there is no reason for concern for staff and students.”

Adamski said her office wanted to be sure the community was being accurately informed.

“We understand that sometimes wrong information gets out there and we want to allay people’s fears,” Adamski said.

SAU 43 Superintendent Irwin Sussman said this week the district was in contact with state health officials and passed that information on to parents.

“There is no public health concern and we are mourning the death of our staff member,” Sussman said.

“We felt we should try to be proactive,” Sussman said about the message.

Sussman said he could not speak about when or why he was contacted by state health officials or anything about those conversations.

“That is private,” he said.

Adamski said that by law, her office must be contacted by hospitals or other health care facilities when there is a presence of a communicable disease or illness.

With a call from a hospital — Adamski said she could not name the facility — and calls from the community she believed it was necessary to communicate with the school.

“We were contacted by a concerned parent and health care professional about the meningitis in the community and we responded to allay fears,” she said. “We wanted to make sure the right information got out there. It was not the type of illness that required any recommendation.”

Sussman said the SAU office did receive calls last week from some parents but no one has called his office this week and the attendance rate at the school is normal. Two School Board members, Chairman Howard Shultz and Liz Hennig, said they have not received any calls from concerned parents.

“I know the administration has given assurances that there is no hazard or danger to the public or students,” Shultz said.

“I think the SAU has done their due diligence on this,” said Hennig, adding that anyone not satisfied with the explanation from the SAU should contact the board.

Sawyer started working part-time for the district in 2004 and became a full-time paraprofessional in 2011, the superintendent said.

Sawyer is remembered by her colleagues for her devotion and concern for her students. “She was very kind and cared deeply about the kids,” said Newport kindergarten teacher Sherie Wright. “She gave a lot and always asked the students if they wanted a birthday cake on their birthday.”

Sawyer, 50, died Nov. 20. She taught first graders.

“Really, really cared about the kids,” added first grade teacher Lisa Ferrigno.

“She did a super job,” said Sussman. “She had an excellent relationship with her students and always promoted a caring and nurturing approach to teaching.

“Our condolences go out to her family.”

Richards Principal Phil Callanan said Sawyer worked hard and was “always looking to do the right thing for students and the teachers she worked with.”

Special Education teacher Wendy Dyke said Sawyer’s interest in her students went beyond the classroom.

“She was always interested in what the students were doing in and out of school.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at