updated 2/7/2007 10:17:13 AM ET 2007-02-07T15:17:13

Rhode Island officials canceled school Thursday and Friday for more than 20,000 students because of a suspected case of meningitis and the death of a second-grader from encephalitis.

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Health experts are trying to determine whether the cases are connected.

“Given the parents’ concerns and our concerns, we felt that out of abundance of caution we would keep schools closed for the next two days,” said Dr. David Gifford, state public health director.

In addition, the Catholic Diocese of Providence closed eight schools in three communities, with a combined 2,600 students, as a precaution. No cases of meningitis or encephalitis have been reported among the students, said diocese spokesman Michael Guilfoyle.

The case of suspected meningitis was reported Wednesday in an unidentified student in Coventry. Also, two weeks ago, Dylan Gleavey, a Warwick elementary school student, died of encephalitis. A classmate of hers and a girl at a West Warwick school also contracted encephalitis but have since recovered.

Dylan’s encephalitis was brought on by “walking pneumonia,” a common illness that in rare cases can lead to meningitis or encephalitis.

Meningitis is a dangerous inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain.

More epidemiologists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention headed to the state to assist the half-dozen scientists already in Rhode Island.

Health investigators said they will spend the next few days talking to school nurses and looking for possible additional cases in hospitals.

The school closings affected students in three communities south of Providence: 11,500 in Warwick; 6,000 in Coventry; and 4,000 in West Warwick. The three communities have had an unusually high incidence of pneumonia, Gifford said.

Doreen Simao of Coventry said she had been sending her 5-year-old son, Malakie, to kindergarten each day with a small bottle of hand sanitizer because of the illnesses.

Joanne Grace, the mother of a 5-year-old Coventry girl, said officials “definitely did the right thing.”

“There’s too much of a risk for someone to get something potentially fatal,” Grace said.

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