Coronavirus and K-12 Education: Virtual Learning Vs Hybrid Learning : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders This school year is proving to be unlike any other. Teaching might be a nightmare in schools doing hybrid learning, a success for those doing virtual learning, or vice versa. It all depends on which school district you're in and what resources and funding you might be able to access. So what's the experience been like so far for the teachers trying to make school happen?
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Coronavirus And Teachers

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Coronavirus And Teachers

Coronavirus And Teachers

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SARAH CHIRICHIGNO: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Let's get started. Make sure you read the board. You need to have your nameplate out in front of you. Get your science notebook and a pencil.



That is Sarah Chirichigno. And that audio you heard, she recorded the sound of her class for me recently.


CHIRICHIGNO: ...Your Google Drive...

SANDERS: Sarah is a teacher in Utah.

CHIRICHIGNO: I am in South Jordan, Utah.

SANDERS: OK. Where - is that near Salt Lake City?

CHIRICHIGNO: Yeah. It's about 25 minutes southwest of Salt Lake City. We're in Salt Lake...

SANDERS: She teaches at Mountain Creek Middle School.

CHIRICHIGNO: I teach ninth-grade earth science and AP Environmental Science - so all ninth-graders.

SANDERS: I called up Sarah to see what back-to-school life is looking like for teachers. And, well, it is looking a lot different than last year. Sarah Chirichigno has had to change just about everything in her classroom to respond to the pandemic, even the way her kids come into class.

CHIRICHIGNO: So when the bell rings and I have a whole class leave, I have the door to the hallway shut behind them, and then I hustle around the room. I've got this kind of pressurized spray - I think it's hydrogen peroxide - that I'm spraying on all the desks.


CHIRICHIGNO: And once I've gotten all the desks, I go and I open the door, and I stand there with paper towel, and I give each student a paper towel as they enter. And they are responsible for wiping down their desk, tossing the paper towel in the garbage can.

SANDERS: Sarah told me there's a whole logic behind this.

CHIRICHIGNO: The incoming students have more skin in the game, right? So they're the ones who clean the desks rather than the outgoing students.

SANDERS: Yeah 'cause if you're leaving, you don't care.

CHIRICHIGNO: Exactly, especially when you're, you know, a high schooler. And they use hand sanitizer as they enter the door as well.

SANDERS: And Sarah says, ultimately, it works.

CHIRICHIGNO: And the very first day was really funny. So when the second period - so all the students going to their second period, when they got to the door and they were being given paper towels saying, go wipe down your desks, the kids just, like, looked at me. They were like, what? And I was like, go wipe down your desk. And I said, welcome to 2020. And a lot of them laughed, and they got used to it really quickly.


SANDERS: I'm Sam Sanders. You are listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. In this episode, the teachers.


SANDERS: It is September. We are back in school. And what even is a school year in 2020? We are still figuring that out. So this episode, we really wanted to focus on the teachers to see how strange the school year has been so far and may continue to be. We talked to dozens of teachers across the country, and what's become clear is that how well or how poorly things are going at a school, it really depends on where you are and what district you're in. There is no one version of school in America this fall. There are thousands, if not more. We'll hear about all of that from Sarah in Utah and also a teacher in Texas. She is having just about the opposite experience. She is not OK going back to school.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: I feel like the teacher voices were ignored even though we were screaming, saying, we do not feel safe. This is not OK.

SANDERS: Stay with us for more on the new normal for this school year.


SANDERS: All right. So that teacher you heard earlier, Sarah Chirichigno, the science teacher in Utah - in spite of the weird desk-wiping protocol she has to go through, she actually has one of the best-case scenarios when it comes to in-person teaching. Her state, it has a mask mandate in schools, and social distancing is happening in the classroom. Also, Sarah's school district is giving her lots of assistance to help make her classroom safer. But despite all the support, Sarah still had a hard choice to make when it came time to go back.


CHIRICHIGNO: I mean, of course, my personal health is very important to me. I'm also pregnant. So of course...

SANDERS: Congratulations.

CHIRICHIGNO: Thank you - yeah, really exciting. So of course, it was - I had to really think about whether I wanted to go in in person or not. And if I opted to do the online teaching, there's a risk that I wouldn't get my room back at my school next year, and that kind of breaks my heart. So I basically weighed it out. And I was like, OK, I love my school and my students, and I really want to stay there.

SANDERS: Is the district or someone paying for your hydrogen peroxide and your paper towels?

CHIRICHIGNO: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. My district has gone above and beyond. So they provide the paper towels and the hand sanitizer and the hydrogen peroxide and all the stuff we're spraying. But then in addition to that, they gave $500 to each teacher, saying, buy whatever PPE you want to make yourself feel comfortable. And so I bought a huge HEPA air filter that I plugged in in front of my desk.


CHIRICHIGNO: And then I bought a lot of high-quality masks, like KN95s and some other more comfortable masks.


CHIRICHIGNO: Yeah. And then they also gave us $150 to buy any technology needs. So like, a microphone helps when you're wearing a mask, a tripod to record yourself for virtual students - like, those kind of things.


CHIRICHIGNO: And where this money is coming from, I have no idea. Like, I don't know how my district is affording...

SANDERS: Hey, don't ask too many questions. Don't ask too many questions.

CHIRICHIGNO: (Laughter) Exactly. I'm just submitting the receipts and being like, OK.


SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. You know, you mentioned that your students are following the rules. But besides just being there and doing what they should do, how's their mental and emotional health - you know, for the ones that are in your class and also for the 20% who are at home, I guess, watching you on Zoom?

CHIRICHIGNO: Yeah, that's a really good question. My kids are so grateful to be back at school. For so many of them - I mean, I'm not saying they all come from unhappy homes because they don't. Plenty come from, you know, perfectly loving homes. But I mean, you and I know we've spent a lot of time at home this year. And these kids...

SANDERS: It's been hard. Yeah.

CHIRICHIGNO: It's been hard. And so the kids are so thrilled to be back among their peers. And being a teenager, I mean, the social aspect of high school is huge, right? So they're thrilled to be back. And then in terms of the students who elected to learn from home - I have one virtual section of students online, and I work really hard to have, like, discussion boards where they interact with each other. And of course, that doesn't replace being in a classroom talking face-to-face but certainly trying.

SANDERS: Yeah. I mean, it seems like, all things considered, your school and you - you're doing a heck of a job. I mean, it's pretty remarkable to hear that the train is still running. What is the plan for your school if, in spite of all precautions, there's an outbreak? What happens then?

CHIRICHIGNO: Oh, yeah. So the state of Utah provided recommendations, and I believe that my school district will follow all of those. And they're - I support them, definitely. So we, as teachers, have been instructed to not change seating charts at all until, like, a break. Who they sit next to is who they sit next to for the next, you know, however many weeks.

SANDERS: So can track if you need to.

CHIRICHIGNO: So you can track it. Right. So if I get a COVID-positive student, I will be alerted by the health department and my principal and say, hey, this student was positive; please report any student who sat within 6 feet of that student. Our admins will supervise contact tracing among all seven of their periods - right? - because they're not just in my class. They attend seven classes a day.

SANDERS: Yeah. Wow.

CHIRICHIGNO: So we will contact trace.

SANDERS: Utah's got it figured out.

CHIRICHIGNO: Yeah. And then if we have 15 positive cases in my school, that is considered an outbreak. And if we have an outbreak, then my school will close for a two-week quarantine, and we will virtually teach for two weeks.

SANDERS: It is so refreshing to just talk with you because I hear a level of assurance, and I hear a level of trust, you know, between you and your district and your parents and your students. I feel like a lot of other districts, parents, parts of the country, schools - they don't have that fundamental level of trust. And - I don't know. It's not really a question. It's more of a thought. Like...

CHIRICHIGNO: No, I agree with you. I agree with you. And I'm - you're getting at the trust thing, and that's huge. Like, I know without hesitation that if I had a COVID-positive student, my principal would tell me. They wouldn't hide it from me. I feel like my community is working together.


CHIRICHIGNO: I've had a couple absences in every class all day long, and my hope is that that means that parents are being really precautious with their kid. And if their kid has the sniffles or a cough or a slight fever...

SANDERS: Keep them home.

CHIRICHIGNO: ...They're keeping them home, right? Because it's a team effort. If you've got parents who just give their kid a, you know, ibuprofen and send them out the door, that's, you know...

SANDERS: Yeah. That's not too good.

CHIRICHIGNO: And I will say, Utah has not been a hotspot throughout this entire thing. It's very different than if you were in a major city. I will say if you've got the trust and you've got the resources, it is possible to very cautiously and optimistically open a school and hope for the best (laughter).


SANDERS: Thanks again to ninth-grade science teacher Sarah Chirichigno. After we taped this interview, one of the high schools in Sarah's district reported 17 positive coronavirus cases. The school board voted to close the school for deep cleaning for two days, but they did not have all the students and teachers quarantine for 14 days. And that choice is against the recommendations of the county health department. Sarah told us she still has full faith in her own school's administration, but she has lost faith in her district's school board.

So Sarah is teaching in person right now, but there are a lot of teachers all over the country this school year who are teaching remotely, often from home. We heard from a few of them.


UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #2: It is now 8:45 a.m., and it is time for students to prepare for the first day of school.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #3: Welcome back, you guys. Good to see you.


UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #3: All right. So we're going to give everybody a minute to sign in here and get you guys rolling.


UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #4: Getting to see my students again, getting to have real conversations - this year, especially about current events - and I'm engaging kids in conversations about truth and reality in a way that I was never able to really get into before in school.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #5: It was so great this week when school started to just be able to hear the kids laughing and see their faces.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #6: I received an email from a parent in my class. It says, (reading) thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. My son is really enjoying your class. Just based on that first day, he mentioned how happy he was that you said you are an LGBTQ ally. I see him energized and engaged, and I know getting this out of students takes talent and sweat in person, even harder online.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #7: There are, of course, challenges with technology access.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #8: I'm also the technology facilitator at my school. And so in being that person, I've been trying to help students get logged onto their new computers - you know, that we had to provide them with, so it's a brand-new thing for them; they don't know how to run any of them - and then having to do all that with staff, as well.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #9: My heart breaks when I get the letters. I apologize I couldn't come because they had to help with family, had to help out and do X, Y and Z - or that they're really trying with the tech, but there's issues beyond their control with connectivity, the device and such.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #10: All you can do is reach out to those families - call, email, get your counselors with you, get their principal involved - and really just show love to that student. Give grace. Really just push for them to be present - right? - in class.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #11: I'm also a parent to a 16-month-old and a 3-year-old, both of whom are doing distance learning while I do distance teaching. While I'm thankful to have my job, having the children at home has been really challenging for me and my family. My husband has sickle cell disease, and he is home on disability. We were fortunate to find spots for both our children at a day care through the D.C. Child Care Subsidy Program. This meant that we could afford to send both of them to day care, which is a necessity since my husband is often in pain and has frequent hospital visits.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #12: Oh, man. What a day. So we had the power go out in the middle of the day, so that was fun in the middle of a Zoom meeting. And then we had to go get dinner because we couldn't cook. Luckily, we had chargers for our phones and could survive for a couple hours till the power came back on. But never seems to end, right? Always some kind of obstacle.

Yeah. So I mean, I guess I'm lucky that I'm employed. I'm healthy. My kids are fantastic and amazing and ridiculous and inspiring. And, you know, maybe it's just me projecting, but I think that the kids crave structure. They crave routine. They crave school. They like being together. They like learning ideas. And I'm just really lucky that I can be there to be part of that.

SANDERS: Thanks to all those teachers you heard there - Michael Hernandez (ph), Neil Rona (ph), Jacqueline Martinez (ph) and Joya Aguirre (ph), Jennifer Goss, Liz Ramos (ph), Magdalena Matta (ph) and Christine Contreras-Slaughter. Coming up, we'll hear from another teacher whose in-person teaching experience has been pretty rough so far.


SANDERS: This fall, a lot of teachers have really struggled returning to the classroom.


SANDERS: Our next teacher works in the Greater Dallas, Texas, area, and her experience has been contentious. Several teachers in this area have spoken out on social media about their fears teaching kids in person. This teacher we talked to, she asked remain anonymous because she is worried that she'll be fired for speaking out openly.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: You know, there are a lot of safety protocols in place. But in my opinion, they aren't necessarily the most important protocols for us to stay healthy. It's more hygiene theater.

SANDERS: This teacher says there is more focus on spraying things down and wiping down surfaces instead of addressing things like air quality and ventilation inside the classrooms. As of this episode's air date, this teacher's district has seen 91 positive student and employee cases since school began on August 19. This teacher calls that situation a, quote, "ticking time bomb."


UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: We are short-staffed as a district because so many have been able to resign and take leave. And the only reason I'm there is because I need the paycheck. And that sounds horrible because that's not why I went into education. But I'm strongly considering resigning after this year - A, to find a job I can do from home and, B, because just the level of disrespect.

SANDERS: Talk more about that. Who is disrespecting?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: The district. And I know that's, you know, the district. But our superintendent has a school board, and they made the decision to open schools face-to-face even though in Texas, they could have applied for eight weeks' worth of a waiver to delay the opening of schools face-to-face. And when the school board meeting was held to make that decision, the only two school board members of color were both vocal in their opposition about opening schools face-to-face. But that was disregarded blatantly. And there were four hours of parent comments by the wealthier demographic of our district about how they were going to go to private school if we didn't open and threats and all kinds of stuff like that.

So I feel like the teacher voices were ignored even though we were screaming, saying, we do not feel safe; this is not OK.

SANDERS: Wow. You alluded to a perhaps racial divide...


SANDERS: ...In all of this. It's interesting to hear you say that because we talked to one of our education reporters, and she alluded to the same thing. Basically, parents of color seem to have more concerns about their kids in this pandemic and going back than white parents do. Have you noticed that as a teacher?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Absolutely. So I saw the numbers for the district. And you can kind of look at by school and which neighborhood the schools are in and get a feel for the demographics. And at the predominantly white and wealthy campuses, the percentages of students returning face-to-face were much higher, and the students of color are much more likely to be still at home learning virtually.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. So then at your school, what is the, like, breakdown of the campus? How much of the campus is back? How much of folks are still at home? And how is the layout of just the classrooms and the campus itself refigured to accommodate this pandemic? Just like lay out the, like, landscape for me if you can.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: OK. So we have about 60% of kids back in person. The desks are, when possible, all facing the front and as far apart as possible but usually far apart only means about a foot and a half or 2 feet.


UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Some grade levels have, like, big tables where multiple children have to share a table. The students have plastic shields, but that doesn't help with air quality concerns.

SANDERS: Yeah. Are they wearing masks?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Yes. There's always the issues with it falling down and the little noses hanging out because it's hard to get a good fit on a kid, but they're trying.


UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: We have dots in the hallways because they're supposed to be spaced out 6 feet in line. And I say supposed to because during the day, when...

SANDERS: Yeah, what grade-school kids are going to follow dots?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Yeah. And it's not as bad during the school day whenever it's just one class in the hallway and the teacher can really keep tight control on it. But at the end of the day at dismissal, it's like - it's the elementary version of all those high school pictures that went viral on Twitter except in this case they're wearing masks, thankfully. But yeah, they're shoulder to shoulder, all bunched up.

SANDERS: Yeah. How does lunch happen? I've heard that some schools are staggering them more and making the kids sit further apart.


SANDERS: Does that work out?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: They're eating in the cafeteria, and they are spaced apart a bit more than normal. And they have their partitions or their dividers that they carry with them and put on the table.

SANDERS: Wow. How do you - I mean, you're talking about this all very calmly, matter of factly. How is your mental health right now?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: In the toilet (laughter). Thanks for asking. No, it's terrible. Yeah. I just made an appointment with a therapist. I have seen a psychiatrist. I'm on anxiety meds so that I can go to work every day. It's awful.

SANDERS: Ugh. I hope you're taking some personal days, some mental health days. You deserve that.


SANDERS: Yeah. What are parents saying?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Well, many of the ones who wrote to the school board were basically just, you know, teachers, you need to get back to work. Our tax dollars pay your salary; get in there. Like, stop being a slacker. From what I've heard from colleagues who have interacted with parents, like, you would think that they would be super grateful - like, wow, we love you guys; we're so glad you're doing this...

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: ...Not necessarily, no.

SANDERS: Why do you think that is? Like, I don't know. Like, the work of teaching is, like, fundamental to the function of a society. And...

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Well, they loved us in April...

SANDERS: Really?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: ...Because they were all realizing how hard our jobs were.


UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: But by August, they didn't care about us (laughter), and they didn't care if we lived or died.

SANDERS: Why do you think that is?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: I'm not sure. And I don't think it's all of them. Right? It's really - you know, #NotAllParents.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: But I think that the entitled ones who are, you know, demographically more likely to have sent their children back to school, those are the parents who are being interacted with right now. And so maybe it's skewed for that reason because I definitely - like, when I was teaching virtually, I got a lot of, you know, respect and gratitude and had a lot of great one-on-one conversations. But I think that now that we're back, I think the parents just desperately want the world to be back to normal. And I think that a lot of people are angry that it's not, and sometimes that frustration gets taken out on others whose fault it is not.

SANDERS: Yeah. If your school can avoid a shutdown and continue a school year, the way things are now, do you feel confident that you could give your kids an actual quality education?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Not at all. One of the reasons I was pushing so hard to remain virtual - other than safety, obviously - is because I feel like I was teaching them much more effectively. Like, obviously I love masks. Right? Super pro-mask - everybody wear your masks. But they're not learning as much from me when I'm in person, focused on not dying, trying to spray all the surfaces and they can't see my face versus when we're on Zoom together and I'm at my house so I don't have to wear a mask and they can see me clearly and understand what I'm saying and I'm calm and not panicking, right? Because it's very much like the actual education right now is taking a back seat to the safety protocols.

SANDERS: Yeah. And it's hard to be...

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Rightfully so (laughter).

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So you know that we're talking to more than just you for this episode.


SANDERS: What does it feel like to know that in the same country, you're going through what you just told me and this other teacher in Utah is being given money to help prepare for the pandemic?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: It feels like the most Texas thing ever.

SANDERS: Explain.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: I actually used to live in Utah in a suburb outside of Salt Lake City, so that's kind of funny to me.

SANDERS: Stop it. Oh, my goodness. OK. (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: I substitute taught there for a little while. It definitely feels like Texas does not like its teachers from a lawmaker perspective because one of the things that all of my friends in other states keep saying, they're like, you guys need to strike. Like, what's wrong? Why aren't you walking out? Well...

SANDERS: Can y'all actually strike in Texas?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: No. And that's what people don't understand. If we were to, because Texas, they can take our teacher retirement in addition to...

SANDERS: Wait. Seriously?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Yes. So not only do you not get to have your teaching certificate anymore, which people could maybe live with, they take your retirement. So that's what I mean - it's the most Texas thing ever. Like, people are terrified to speak out. I know many, many teachers having bad experiences right now. And I sent them your guys' email, and no one will talk because they're so scared of repercussions.

SANDERS: Does that mean you might leave teaching?

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: Yes. I'm strongly considering taking this year to do some research and find another path and then move forward with that path after this school year is up.


SANDERS: Thanks again to that teacher in the Dallas, Texas, area. All right. So the teachers you heard in this episode, they can really only speak about their particular schools because with all things pandemic, it varies from place to place - same goes for education. It varies from place to place. But a few things are abundantly clear. I talked to my colleague Anya Kamenetz - she covers education for NPR - and she said, for the most part, most schools just do not have enough money to be fully prepared for teaching right now even with federal help.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Congress passed one package. Right? That was a while ago - one coronavirus relief package. It had about $13 billion for schools. Schools then said, you know, that's sweet, but we're going to need, like, more than $200 billion to actually do this...


KAMENETZ: ...To retrofit buildings, to do HVAC - like, there was a study...

SANDERS: And a lot of these schools, they can't rely on state or local governments for too much help either because the recession caused by the pandemic means those governments are bringing in less tax revenue.

KAMENETZ: Revenues crashed at the state level. That's what funds our schools. States can't borrow money. A lot of states have balanced budget amendments. So just at the time when they would think that they would be needing to - I don't know - hire janitors, hire school nurses, hire counselors, hire...

SANDERS: Can't do it, yeah.

KAMENETZ: ...Remote learning specialists, not only can they not do it, they're actually cutting jobs in places.

SANDERS: Anya says a lot of educators across the country are being asked to do twice the work with half the money. And there's something else - when we talked, Anya cited this study from Chalkbeat. And it confirms a thing you've already heard this episode, a thing a lot of experts already agree on. There was one big factor that really affects how the pandemic will shape someone's school experience this year.

KAMENETZ: It really breaks down by race. So like, white kids are much more likely to be going back in for full time in person. African American, Hispanic children who are more likely to be in blue states in cities, you know, and also in underresourced districts, they are more likely to be full time online.

SANDERS: And Anya says there is a likely reason for this.

KAMENETZ: I think it has a lot to do with different communities' experience of the virus. So it has been seen across the country that, you know, Black and Hispanic families are more hesitant or more fearful of going back to school in person. And, you know, that's very - it's like, well, it's hit those communities harder. Right? They've had higher rates of illness, of death. They might be more likely to have essential workers in their families or have elderly folks living in multigenerational...

SANDERS: Or just know someone who died.


SANDERS: If you're Black or brown, you probably know someone who died. And you're probably a lot more reluctant...


SANDERS: ...To send your kid to school.

KAMENETZ: Exactly. Exactly. And you know, a similar example - here in New York City, where I live, I believe it's around half or more than half of Asian families also have opted for all remote.

SANDERS: I'm thinking back to earlier this year when people were saying, oh, the pandemic does not discriminate. Yeah, that is not true, not for the grown-ups and not for the kids. But Anya also said there was something about kids - no matter where they are, no matter their race - they are a lot tougher than you might think.

KAMENETZ: As strange as it is being back in the classroom, seeing your friends and your teacher really outweighs the strangeness of it. And kids can be very adaptable. You know, I interviewed - right after Denmark came back in session, which was back in April, I talked to one of the - someone from the school there. And they said, you know, the kids have invented new games to play since they can't touch each other. They play shadow tag, and they tag each other's shadows on the playground.

SANDERS: Oh, my God. That is both the sweetest and saddest thing ever.

KAMENETZ: A hundred percent, a hundred percent. And, you know, I think this is something where our kids' behavior has changed, you know. And they're figuring out how to communicate despite the masks.


SANDERS: To the kids, to the parents, to the teachers - thank you, and keep doing your best.


SANDERS: This episode was produced by Anjuli Sastry with help from Star McCown. Our editor for this episode was Jordana Hochman. Listeners, we're back in your feeds on Friday. Till then, I'm Sam Sanders. Stay safe. We'll talk soon.


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