SALT LAKE CITY — As a beloved Corner Canyon High School teacher who recently contracted COVID-19 receives care in a hospital intensive care unit, the district school board set into place new thresholds that trigger additional steps to mitigate spread of the virus.
Corner Canyon career and technical education teacher Charri Jensen, known as “Mama J” to students and colleagues, tested positive on Sept. 10, was hospitalized Wednesday and has been placed on a ventilator, according to her daughter, Talesha Jensen.
Doctors told Talesha Jensen that her mother was working hard to get off the ventilator and get out of the hospital.
“We just got off the phone with the doctor, and she is stable,” Jensen said of her mother.
“The doctor said it’s going to be a long journey, and we won’t see much improvement in the first few days. ... It’s been crazy, but she’s a fighter. ... It’s the protocol in the ICU when people who are on a respirator, they usually restrain their arms, even though they’re sedated. Yesterday, she got out of the restraints and pulled out her breathing tube. She’s so strong. That’s my mom.”
Charri Jensen’s case is part of a larger outbreak at Corner Canyon, and her daughter said she believes her mother contracted the virus from a colleague who tested positive the day before she did. Talesha Jensen, her sister and her father have also tested positive for COVID-19, but their symptoms more closely resemble a severe cold, she said.
As Charri Jensen undergoes treatment, the Canyons Education Association has urged the school board to do more to address teachers’ mounting workloads and concerns about their health. While COVID-19 appears to be less of a threat to youths, adults face higher risks.
In recent days, the association charged that the district and school board had not followed state Department of Health recommendations for schools as numbers of COVID-19 cases mounted in the school district.
School board members said they struggled applying the state recommendation, which calls for increasing mitigation steps once there are more than 15 cases at a school. That may be a meaningful threshold at an elementary school but presents significant challenges for older students, forcing scheduling changes for high schools of at least 2,000 students over relatively low numbers of cases, board members said
The school board voted Friday to shift the district to a threshold of a 1% or 2% positive COVID-19 school-associated rate at high schools.
If the COVID-19 school-associated positive rate reaches 2% within a two-week period, it triggers a pivot to online learning for 14 days, the documents state.
Corner Canyon will be the first school affected by the new standard and will shift to online learning on Monday.
Some 2,300 students attend Corner Canyon High School. A district official said there were at least 70 cases as of Friday.
School activities will continue so long as groups do not have more than three cases of COVID-19. Some activities, such as cross country and volleyball, have already been halted.
The school was scheduled to host a football game Friday against Pleasant Grove, a school that shifted to a hybrid model to contain an outbreak last week, and district spokesman Jeff Haney said no students would be allowed at the game.
“Additional precautions have been put in place for this game,” he said. “There will be four tickets per player instead of six, so there will be 300 fewer people than last week.”
Sunny Washington’s daughter is a freshman on the volleyball team, and she first became aware her daughter may have been exposed on Monday when coaches texted the players. It was her understanding that the school was already over the 15-case threshold and classes would be going online anyway.
When she didn’t hear anything from the school or the health department, she reached out to other parents. One of them shared a letter they’d received from the health department, detailing what precautions to take, as their child had been exposed to a COVID-19 case.
Tuesday morning she scheduled her daughter for a test, which the teen received on Wednesday morning, the same day she talked with the school and was told “it was up to me if I wanted to get her tested, but that she needed to quarantine until Sept. 28.”
Throughout the week as Washington was talking with other parents, confusion reigned, with some parents trying to convince others to petition the school to remain open, despite additional cases and more quarantines every day.
“Thursday we got her results, and she tested positive,” Washington said. “I texted the coach and let her know, and then I contacted the school. That’s all I’ve heard.”
Friday afternoon Washington got a call from the health department scheduling a contact tracing interview.
Washington said the lack of information makes decision-making difficult, and because she works for a company that creates contact tracing software, she understands that if officials want to contain any outbreak, they have to do effective, timely contact tracing. She said the fact that exposed students are not required to get tested is also problematic.
She was asked by other parents to use a form letter to lobby the district to keep Corner Canyon open, despite growing numbers and assurances that more than 15 cases would trigger a hybrid or online model that would help contain the spread.
“It’s as if they’re changing the rules as they go along,” Washington said. “That’s where there is miscommunication or no communication. Very clearly people are getting overwhelmed because we’re not doing what we planned.”
A week ago, the school district placed the Draper high school on a split schedule for a week amid an increase in cases and then extended that schedule another week. It did not suspend school activities.
At the time, the Salt Lake County Health Department recommended that the school shift to online learning for two weeks, the incubation period of the virus, a spokesman said. The department’s recommendations also include a deep cleaning of schools and suspending school activities.
According to board documents, the new threshold of a 1% positive COVID-19 school-associated rate will trigger immediate discussions with the health department “on potential changes to the school schedule or other precautionary measures.”
The district plan also states if there are three or more students in one classroom or involved in an extracurricular activity who test positive within a two-week period, the entire class will be quarantined for 14 days from the last exposure, as determined by contact tracing.
Canyons School District Superintendent Rick Robins said the number of cases at Brighton High School is also nearing the point where the board will need to take action.
On Friday, the county health department reported that Brighton had also exceeded 15 confirmed cases in the past two weeks. Robins said there are 19 cases. Just over 2,102 students attend the school.
Brighton Principal Tom Sherwood said the school has asked more than 200 students to quarantine. The quarantines have made teaching difficult, something he said he’s not sure board and state officials fully understood the impact of when they were coming up with guidelines.
The quarantines have forced teachers to come up with alternatives for students who didn’t sign up for distance learning, and it’s put tremendous pressure on teachers and staff, who were already doing an enormous amount of extra work. The realities have shifted his opinion on instituting a four-day school week, which gives teachers a day to prepare and catch up, even if they also teach online.
“You can’t be a good classroom teacher and a good distance learning teacher in an eight-hour day,” he said. “There really just isn’t enough hours in the day unless we give them some time to manage that revolving door.”
Meanwhile, Alta High School has 14 cases, Robins said.
Aside from the new threshold and the decision to place Corner Canyon on remote learning, the board also acknowledged teachers are struggling to keep up with the demands of preparing lessons on multiple teaching platforms.
Board member Clareen Arnold, who is an educator in another school district, warned that “Our teachers are at their limits.”
She proposed moving to four days of in-person instruction at secondary schools, which the board will consider at a later meeting.
Board member Mont Millerberg agreed.
“We’ve asked them to teach in person, we’ve asked them to teach online. We’ve asked them to touch base with their students that are absent like they’ve never done before. They are doing two and sometimes three preparations a day,” he said.
Millerberg said the board has “bent over backwards to try to keep our students in class.”
Now, “I just feel like we have to err on the side of caution,” he said.
BJ Weller, the district’s responsive services director, said the demands of contact tracing had also taken a toll on the district’s school nurses.
“They’re doing a fantastic job. We might be close to breaking, but they’re holding strong,” Weller said.
“Just be nice to your nurse,” he added.
The district is creating a district-level dashboard to better inform the public and guide administrators’ and school board members’ decisions.
The dashboard will identify by tiers of concern the number of positive cases of COVID-19 in the previous two weeks, with Tier 1 indicating 0-5 cases, Tier 2 as 6-14 cases and Tier 3 as 15 or more cases.
Tier 1 requires no action.
At Tier 2, a “vigilance letter” will be sent to parents and additional steps will be taken to mitigate spread of the virus.
Tier 3 means the school district will collaborate with the health department and identify and discuss additional mitigation strategies.
If an elementary or middle school reaches a 15-case threshold, school district and health department officials will discuss potential schedule changes or other precautionary measures.
Board member Amanda Oaks said the school board and the district need to strike a balance between what best serves students and educators.
As a parent, she understands the intense challenges of remote learning, she said.
“When we have teachers that are impacted as significantly as a teacher at Corner Canyon is right now, we have a collective responsibility as a community to figure out how to make this work for everyone,” she said, referring to Jensen.
Rob Geertsen, a teacher and Charger TV broadcaster who prepared a short video asking for prayers for his teaching colleague, said Jensen “means so much to the community.”
He added, “Parents, past and current students, and colleagues absolutely love her. She’s the No. 1 supporter of our kids in extracurricular activities.”