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Schools receive blizzard of calls

Salt Lake Valley school districts were inundated Wednesday with calls from concerned parents after deciding to keep schools open amid possibly the most-severe snowstorm in Utah history.

Many districts stood by their decisions. But Murray Superintendent Ronald Stephens says he would close schools if he could do it all over again."If I had known how much it would snow, I would not have made that same decision," said Stephens, who drove neighborhood streets at 5 a.m. to help make his decision an hour later. "But it got ugly after that - real ugly."

The storm dumped almost 20 inches of snow at the airport, 28 inches in the Avenues and 31 inches on the benches.

Several school districts decided to keep schools open after hearing the storm would subside by late morning, school buses were ready to roll and schools were safe and heated.

"I know the decision to keep schools open has not pleased everybody, and I ask that you understand that decisions such as these are not made casually," Salt Lake City Superintendent Darline Robles said in a letter to parents. "Please know that the safety of children is my first concern, and these decisions are not based on makeup days or money."

Attendance at Salt Lake District was between 20 percent and 70 percent; Jordan had about 66 percent, Granite showed 66 percent to 75 percent attendance, and Murray estimated 60 percent attendance. Attendance totals for Davis School District were unavailable Thursday morning.

In Salt Lake City District, one mother seethed that her Bryant Intermediate student, who arrived at school on time, spent the morning making snow sculptures. A Hillside Intermediate student said schoolchildren watched videos in many classes. One second-grade teacher reportedly was surprised so many students in her class - nine - braved the storm.

Ensign Elementary principal John LaMalfa reported several students arrived around 11 a.m. and that several were picked up early. Teachers postponed tests and modified lesson plans in response to 50 percent attendance.

"I would say, with the modifications, (the day) was effective. Our teachers do a good job," LaMalfa said. "In some respects they took advantage of it, made the most of it and did some good things."

No students will be penalized for tardies or absences.

The State Office of Education requires schools run 180 days a year. Districts can insert makeup days into calendars for closures. Granite School District's makeup day is slated for the Friday before Memorial Day - unlikely to please parents.

"Because of the requirement to hold a certain amount of classes every year, we are reluctant to close," said Granite spokesman Kent Gardner. "We only close in extreme emergencies."

But to parent Rick Adamson, Wednesday was extreme. After closing his own business, he kept his Brighton High honor students and University of Utah student home.

"I consider it, today especially, to be an extreme hazard," Adamson said, citing airport closures. "Why close all the private schools and leave all the public schools open?"

Yet when it comes to closures, districts are caught in the middle.

In 1996, heavy snows knocked out power to schools, prompting closures. Working parents scrambled to find child care, then called districts to vent.

"What do kids do if they don't go to school? Not everyone has a mom or dad who can stay home and take care of them," said Karen Derrick, president of the Salt Lake City Board of Education. "The superintendents in this valley made the very best decisions they could at the time."

Jordan School District's transportation department had been advised by the National Weather Service to close schools, spokeswoman Melinda Rock acknowledged. But she said all other factors gave the green light.

Granite School District canceled afternoon extracurricular activities but also stands by its decision to keep schools open, said Dale Barker, assistant superintendent of school services. He recalls three school closures in 27 years at the district.

"Any parent can say, `I'm keeping my student home; we're concerned.' That's their choice as private caregivers to a child."