A teacher at Corner Canyon High — whose students endearingly call her “Mama J” and who rides a wooden hobbyhorse to cheer at every game — is currently in an intensive care unit, her family says, after she contracted COVID-19 at the school that she loves.
Charri Jensen’s hospitalization comes as part of a larger outbreak at the Draper high school, where the district’s board voted last week to ignore state health guidance and not shut down, despite having more than 15 cases on campus. But the spread there has since ballooned to more than 70 infections.
And now, after news of the beloved teacher’s condition and with a new vote Friday, members decided to close the school for two weeks after all.
“When we have teachers that are impacted as significantly as the teacher at Corner Canyon is right now, we have a collective responsibility as a community to figure out what to do,” said Canyons School District board member Amanda Oaks.
The board unanimously decided to move all classes online until at least Oct. 5.
Members remained steadfast, though, in approving a new policy that says high schools in the district will still not automatically be closed at 15 cases. Instead, elementary and junior high schools will follow that advice from the Utah Department of Health, meant to limit the reach of an outbreak.
But the five high schools — which have much larger student populations — will move to a percentage system. If one of them hits a 1% positivity rate among students and staff, then a letter will be sent to parents and the board will reconvene to discuss “mitigation strategies,” such as moving to a hybrid mix of online and in-person instruction. That’s what board members initially did with Corner Canyon High.
Only when a high school hits 2% — as Corner Canyon now has, with more than 70 cases with a student body of around 2,000 — will it be closed. Still, extracurriculars will be allowed to continue as long as no more than two members on a team have tested positive.
“I think it’s imperative we look at this in a different way because high schools are much different,” said district Superintendent Rick Robins, during a meeting that continued for more than two hours on Friday.
Robins, who helped draft the new policy, said at 2% positivity most of the students at a school are quarantined anyway, from possibly being exposed to someone with the virus in their classroom. At Corner Canyon, for instance, more than 500 are under order to quarantine at home.
The district seems to be experiencing the most spread in Salt Lake County. Two other high schools in the district — Alta High with 14 cases and Brighton High with 19 — also are now close to meeting the district’s new 1% threshold. The board will meet again Tuesday to decide how to respond there. And one middle school, Draper Park, is at 13 and could soon be closed.
Every chair in the boardroom was full for the meeting, though attendees sat socially distanced and wearing masks. Some, including members of the board, pushed to keep students in school as much as possible. Others said the safety of teachers needs to be prioritized and that many who aren’t sick feel burnt out from the workload.
Board member Mont Millerberg said he doesn’t want a student or staffer to die. One woman held a sign that said: “We love you, Mama J,” for the Corner Canyon educator in the ICU.
Jensen, a popular sewing and design teacher, was put on a ventilator Thursday after testing positive a week earlier, said her daughter, Talesha Jensen. She is one of Utah’s first teachers to be hospitalized; a total of 11 patients have received hospital care in connection with outbreaks in schools since classes resumed this fall.
“I’m so worried about her,” said Talesha Jensen on Friday, her voice cracking over the phone. “I need her more than anything. And I know her students do, too. She’s like family to everyone.”
She paused. “I just can’t stop crying,” Talesha Jensen said. “I can’t imagine life without her.”
Her mom first started feeling sick on Sept. 8 and left class early. She had body aches and fatigue, but thought she might just have a cold, like the many she’s gotten from a lifetime spent with kids in the classroom.
A few days later, though, Jensen got a major headache and went to get tested for the coronavirus as a precaution. She was positive. And it’s progressed quickly. By Wednesday this week, there was a rattle in her chest when she breathed, said Talesha Jensen, 23.
Despite telling her daughter “no, no, no,” Jensen was finally convinced to go to the emergency room. There, Talesha Jensen noted, her mom’s oxygen level registered at 61. Normally, that should be in the 90s.
Afraid she might get worse, Jensen’s family had to say goodbye, and the staff transported her to an intensive care unit at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray. Less than 24 hours later, Jensen was sedated and placed on a ventilator to help her breathe.
“She’s really struggling,” Talesha Jensen said. “But she’s a fighter.”
Talesha Jensen said another teacher at the school who works closely with her mom tested positive shortly before Jensen did. And the family believes that’s where she got it.
Canyons School District spokesman Jeff Haney confirmed Friday that five teachers at Corner Canyon have contracted the virus. He declined to say exactly how many students have beyond “more than 70.”
Talesha Jensen said her mom had been taking precautions and wearing a mask, but there wasn’t a lot of space to socially distance at school. After the 53-year-old teacher got sick, the virus spread throughout their house. Talesha Jensen and her dad got it next. Then it moved to Talesha Jensen’s younger sister, Ashlynn Jensen. Some extended family that had been staying with them, too, tested positive.
“It’s just been this huge domino,” Talesha Jensen said.
While she, her sister and their dad have had much milder symptoms, including a sore throat and a runny nose, Jensen became ill very quickly. The teacher has received plasma infusions from people who have previously recovered from COVID-19. And Talesha Jensen said that doctors have told the family that Jensen could be on the ventilator for a few days or a few weeks, depending on how her body responds.
“It’s been the most shocking thing,” Talesha Jensen said. “I’m pretty sure I’m living in a nightmare right now. It doesn’t even seem real.”
Her mom has worked at Corner Canyon High since it opened in 2013, she said. Before that, she worked at Alta High School. And previously, she ran a day care out of her home.
Talesha Jensen said her mom loves teaching, and at least a quarter of her closet is filled with Corner Canyon T-shirts, jackets and hats. She goes to every game there, sometimes bringing pom-poms and always riding her trusty steed, a wooden hobbyhorse to represent the school’s mascot, the Chargers.
When the student section doesn’t cheer loudly enough, Talesha Jensen added, her mom stands in front to rally them up.
“She’s the best teacher,” the daughter said with a laugh. “And she’s the best cheerleader.”
Jensen got the nickname “Mama J” from her students partly because she teaches sewing and partly because she’s like everyone’s mom. Almost all of the boys on the football team, Talesha Jensen said, sign up for her class each year. “They take it because of her,” she added. And Jensen loves teaching them how to sew pillows.
The team dedicated its game to her Friday night. Talesha Jensen said her mom would feel honored and she hopes she will be at the next one to cheer them on.