DRAPER — It would be difficult to find a teacher who wanted to be in the classroom more than Charri Jensen.
“She loves Corner Canyon more than anyone I know,” said her daughter Talesha Jensen. “Not just Corner Canyon, she just has the biggest heart.”
When school went online in the spring, Charri Jensen put a frame on her Facebook profile picture that said, “I miss my students!” Students refer to the teacher who focuses on interior design, fashion strategies and clothing as “Mama J,” a loud, proud fan of all things Chargers, especially their student athletes.
Last Thursday, Jensen tested positive for COVID-19 amid an outbreak at the school that has forced the quarantine of the cross country, volleyball and drill teams. While the Salt Lake County Health Department only specifies whether a school has more than 15 cases in a 14-day period, which is the recommended threshold from the health department for a school going online, at least two teachers told the Deseret News they know of dozens of confirmed cases.
Among them is Jensen, who is now on a ventilator fighting for her life.
“My mom is currently at IMC in their Intensive Care Unit,” Talesha Jensen said, admitting she was among those who haven’t taken the virus seriously. “I can definitely attest that I was one of those people that was like, ‘This is nothing. This is just the flu.’ But this spreads like wildfire.”
She asked for prayers, and in a post shared Thursday night on Facebook her sister asked friends and family to fast and pray for their mother this Sunday, which is Jensen’s birthday.
“It’s not just made up stuff, it’s really serious,” Talesha Jensen said. “I haven’t stopped crying. I just, I pray with everything inside of me that she’s going to pull through. I don’t care if you’re not religious. I don’t care if, whatever, like just pray. We just need her. Corner Canyon needs her. I need her.”
While Jensen fights for her life, her colleagues grapple with how to handle the outbreak. Salt Lake County Health Department officials offer advice and information to school officials, but for now the guidelines recommending schools go online if they have more than 15 cases in a 14-day window are just that — recommendations.
“The district does not have to take our recommendation,” said health department spokesman Nicholas Rupp. “I think it’s likely they could remain open if cases are stabilizing or going down. ... But if cases continue to increase, I know (department officials) have the authority to make the recommendation an order.”
Utah Education Association officials and Canyons Education Association officials are fighting for changes, including more time for teachers to keep up with the extra work of teaching in several different ways.
“The most important key to success for our students is who is in front of the classroom,” said Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association. “And we have to assure the safety of our students and their families. And in doing so, we must look out for those teachers who are implementing the curriculum.”
District spokesman Jeff Haney said all options are being discussed.
“The feedback that we’re getting is a significant number of our community would like to see the school remain open,” Haney said, “even in a hybrid fashion.”
Among those who want the school to stay open is Corner Canyon teacher Megan Leach.
“Honestly, I feel good about being back,” she said. “The spring was so hard, especially seeing the kids not complete the online learning. It was hard for them, it was hard for us, and I don’t feel like it was very effective.”
Some teachers are unhappy with how the district has handled both the return to school and quarantine and positive test situations. The Deseret News obtained several messages sent to Canyons teachers by various groups, including the union and an unaffiliated group calling itself the “Canyons Safety Committee.”
While the Canyons Safety Committee asked teachers to call in sick on Friday to protest the district’s handling of the Corner Canyon situation, the Canyons Education Association sent out messages stating it didn’t support a “sick out.” One message warned of possible consequences for teachers’ jobs or licenses if they participate in the sick out.
“Any employee choosing to take job action needs to be aware of possible disciplinary action including against your teaching license, referral to UPAAC (Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission), non-renewal of provisional contracts, and being charged a day without pay,” the message from Canyons Education Association President Erika Bradshaw said. “This action is not protected under the UEA legal services. Taking a day of leave prevents you from participating in any other actions occurring that day.”
Leach said the call for a sick out came from a group not affiliated with the union.
“From all the teachers I’ve talked to, they have no interest in participating,” she said. “I know we’ve been talking and working with the superintendent and school board to get more time for us to keep up with the in-class and extra online demands. They are working on it. It’s such a crazy time with no past experiences to really go off of.”
Some teachers posted on social media late Thursday night that the fact that the unions didn’t support the sick out made it too risky to participate. One teacher said she’d call in sick, regardless. But Leach and two other teachers who spoke to the Deseret News late Thursday said they want to be in school for their students on Friday.
“I don’t think a sick out solves anything other than hurting the kids and our fellow teachers and administrators, none of which have much to say in these decisions,” Leach said. “We want the kids in class and we need the kids in school.”
Leach said that the community could do more to ease the issues being blamed on schools.
“I know the school is getting a lot of heat right now, but it seems to be more of a community issue and not just a school issue. If we really wanted numbers to decrease, we need parent support and community support in following the guidelines, not just those in the building or at the district office. It’s a bigger issue than just the school itself.”
Leach’s assertion is backed by Salt Lake County Health Department officials who said it’s not always possible to narrow every case to an exact cause. Those students going to school may be playing sports or working, and so they may have multiple sources of exposure. That means following quarantine guidelines, getting tested and other precautions are critical to contain an outbreak.
“All the districts are fantastic to deal with, but individual school communities vary,” Rupp said. “Some are very cooperative and follow the recommendations. Other school communities are less cooperative and less likely to follow public health recommendations.”
Contributing: Debbie Worthen