The coronavirus pandemic upended almost every aspect of school at once. It was not just the move from classrooms to computer screens. It tested basic ideas about instruction, attendance, testing, funding, the role of technology and the human connections that hold it all together.
A year later, a rethinking is underway, with a growing sense that some changes may last.
“There may be an opportunity to reimagine what schools will look like,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told The Washington Post. “It’s always important we continue to think about how to evolve schooling so the kids get the most out of it.”
Others in education see a similar opening. The pandemic pointed anew to glaring inequities of race, disability and income. Learning loss is getting new attention. Schools with poor ventilation systems are being slotted for upgrades. Teachers who made it through a crash course in teaching virtually are finding lessons that endure.
“There are a lot of positives that will happen because we’ve been forced into this uncomfortable situation,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the school superintendents association. “The reality is that this is going to change education forever.”
School by screen
Remote learning keeps going
School systems in America are not done with remote learning.
They want more of it.
After a year when some systems did nothing but school by computer screen, it has become clear that learning virtually has a place in the nation’s schools, if simply as an option.
“It’s like a genie that is out of the bottle, and I don’t think you can get it back in,” said Paul Reville, former Massachusetts secretary of education and founding director of Harvard University’s Education Redesign Lab at the Graduate School of Education. “In many respects, this is overdue.”
Few suggest that remote learning is for everyone. The pandemic showed, unmistakably, that most students learn best in person — in a three-dimensional world, led by a teacher, surrounded by classmates and activities.
But school systems across the country are looking at remote learning as a way to meet diverse needs — for teenagers who have jobs, children with certain medical conditions, or kids who prefer learning virtually.
It has also emerged as a way to expand access to less-common courses. If one high school offers a class in Portuguese, students at another school could join it remotely.
Colorado’s second-largest school system, Jeffco Public Schools, recently announced a full-time remote learning program across grade levels. Students would regularly interact with teachers, have mostly live instruction, and stay connected to their neighborhood schools, meeting with a staff member at least once a week.
To make it work, some of the system’s teachers would only be remote. Parent interest was one impetus for the program.
“We’re taking all that we have learned from the pandemic — and others have learned — and going with it,” said Matt Walsh, a community superintendent, who estimated that 1,000 to 2,500 students will enroll during the first year, starting this fall.
In the Washington region, suburban Montgomery County is exploring the creation of a virtual academy for full-time online instruction. Parents have advocated for a program for some time, said Gboyinde Onijala, a spokeswoman.
“The pandemic has helped us see that it is possible and can be done well,” she said.
A study by the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization, found about 2 in 10 school systems were adopting virtual schools, or planning or considering the idea. It was the innovative practice that the greatest number of district leaders surveyed said would outlast the pandemic.
Not everyone imagines the same path forward.
“Remote learning is a supplement, not a substitute, for in-school instruction,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, emphasizing that classroom learning is best for most students and that remote school can mean intense isolation.
“Staring at a screen all day is not optimal,” Weingarten said. “Zoom fatigue is real.”
The quality of remote learning varied widely among school districts, with parents complaining about the lack of live instruction and individual attention as well as technical difficulties. Even many families who want remote learning to continue want it improved.
Remote learning has also meant a spike in failing grades for the most vulnerable students in some areas, including English language learners. And across the country an unprecedented number of students have gone off the radar even as schools try to track them down.
Kevin Dougherty, a Laytonsville, Md., parent, said that while remote education has worked for some families, most kids have struggled — and the toll on mental health and social well-being is hard to ignore. Any program, he said, should be operated by the state, with a dedicated budget so “the needs of virtual learning don’t interfere with in-person learning, and vice versa.”
Katie McIntyre, a mother of two in Damascus, Md., said that for family, virtual classes were “wonderful experiences” — especially for her 10-year-old daughter who has autism and is gifted. Teachers have gone above and beyond.
“If I had any opportunity to do this again, I would,” she said.
— Donna St. George
The great catch-up
Schools set to attack lost learning
Could this pandemic year — when so many children fell so far behind, when students dropped off the radar, when teachers could hardly tell who understood what as they tried to teach from a distance — could this be the year that American education gets serious about helping kids catch up?
An infusion of cash from Washington and a new determination from educators across the country are laying the groundwork for an unprecedented combination of summer programming and high-intensity tutoring, all aimed at helping children recover from what was, for some, a lost year.
What’s more, some believe that once this infrastructure is in place, it could last for years, especially if it shows results.
“We’ve got a big opportunity to do it much better, to really come up with practices that are actually going to catch kids up. If that sticks, it’s revolutionary,” said Dan Weisberg, chief executive of TNTP, a nonprofit group that focuses on effective teaching.
The coronavirus rescue package signed into law by President Biden includes almost $123 billion for public K-12 schools, and districts are required to spend at least 20 percent of their funding on evidence-based interventions to address learning loss. Districts across the country are now gearing up programming for this summer and beyond.
They are also rethinking what the great catch-up should look like, with many shifting the focus from remediation to acceleration, or what’s sometimes called “accelerated learning.”
With remediation, the goal is to make up what a child missed the first time around. Some call it meeting students “where they are.” The problem is students may never catch up. Accelerated learning, by contrast, seeks to make grade-level work accessible to those who are behind through a combination of intensive help and modifications.
So if a child is behind in reading, he might be given the grade-level text along with tools to make it more accessible, such as a plot summary or a list of characters, or perhaps the audiobook version.
“Instead of segregating these children and trying to give them what they didn’t learn, you say to yourself, ‘What must they know in order to stick with their peers and have access to next week’s lesson?’” said David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and former education commissioner for New York state. “The key is you’re always asking yourself, ‘What do they need for next week?’ not ‘What did they miss?’”Advertisement by AvayaMeet the Avaya Contact Center SolutionDeliver an effortless customer experience with a hassle-free, always-on contact center. https://lnkd.in/dP5eecySee more
That’s the approach that Alabama is encouraging for its districts, said Eric Mackey, the state’s schools superintendent.
“We are afraid that when we come back, many of our students are going to be way behind,” Mackey said. “Even if we said, ‘We just need to catch them up to where we were,’ where we were isn’t good enough.”
He said there is simply not enough time for teachers to make up all the lost material. Reteaching is unrealistic, so he is recommending that schools try accelerated learning.
“It’s a shift for most of our districts,” he said. “It’s something that everybody wants to do, but in the past we’ve had neither the time nor resources to really do that.”
The movement is also underway in Los Angeles. L.A. County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo, who works with 80 districts, said educators have been thinking about accelerated learning for a long time, but the deep losses of the last year have prompted them to try something new.
“In the past we have done a lot of remedial work and we’re finding we need to have really high expectations, finding ways of keeping students at the level they should be … not just giving them the same stuff all over again,” she said. “We’re looking at this as an opportunity to think about the whole system about what’s working and what’s not working and how we can improve.”
— Laura Meckler
When students struggle
More support for mental health
The mental health struggles of the nation’s schoolchildren will outlast the pandemic, and so too will school districts’ efforts to meet the far-reaching need.
“We’re getting countless questions from districts that are asking, ‘How do we do this?’ ” said Sharon Hoover, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health.
A year into the pandemic, counselors and others in mental health report an increasing number of students who are depressed or anxious. Hoover says that 75 percent of students who get mental health services get them at school.
With the need so great, she expects schools to hire more staff and to forge partnerships with community mental health providers. In many cases, therapists are based at schools, working with students and families on campus.
“I think we will see more of this,” said Hoover, who once worked as a school-based therapist in Baltimore public schools.
Some school systems have started to expand mental health services. In Broward County, Fla., which was rocked in 2018 by the fatal shootings of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, the school district was already attentive to mental health issues.
Following the mass shooting, it put at least one mental health professional on staff at each of its nearly 240 schools and opened a hotline. But a survey of students and families after the pandemic began revealed another wave of mental health needs.
The 2020-21 school year opened with a focus on mental health, mindfulness, social-emotional learning and equitable distribution of support, said Antoine Hickman, chief of Broward public schools’ student support initiatives. Schools were required to start every day with 10 minutes of mindfulness.
The district stationed a nurse in every school because “nurses are at the front line of mental health,” he said, and more support was added to the hotline. Teletherapy was arranged when in-person services were not possible. A new app — “Tell Another. Listening is Key” (T.A.L.K.) — on students’ learning platforms enabled them to confidentially request mental health support or report abuse.
Mental health services will continue, Hickman said, because the problems the pandemic caused won’t disappear.
In New York City, the country’s largest school district, Meisha Ross Porter, who is taking over as chancellor on Monday, said this month that schools were already arranging for guidance counseling check-ins with students — a step that added to other recent supports, including teacher training on dealing with trauma, grief and self-care.
Last October, 26 schools in neighborhoods hardest hit by covid-19 were connected to outpatient mental health clinics, therapy, evaluation and other clinical services. Plans are in the works to hire 150 social workers.
But in some school districts, mental health interventions underway are “relevant but insufficient,” according to Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor, co-directors of the UCLA Center for Mental Health in Schools.
Too often the focus is on hiring more support staff, increasing education and expanding social-emotional learning but, they said, those are “often unrealistic and usually produce counterproductive competition for sparse resources.”
What’s also essential, they said, is unifying the district’s services and then weaving in community and home resources “to develop a comprehensive and equitable system of student learning supports.”
— Donna St. George and Valerie Strauss
Educators draw lessons from a challenging year
Kim Walker, a veteran public high school social studies teacher in Philadelphia, has 167 students in her six virtual classes. The students are not required to turn on their video during class and only a handful do. Most remain muted. A full six months into the school year, Walker has no idea what most of them look like or sound like.
“Some days I don’t see or hear anybody. There is no interaction at all,” she said. “When they’re in the physical classroom, you can see if they’re struggling. You can push them and help them. You can check in on them. But this is crazy.”
Crazy is a word many teachers have used to describe teaching during the pandemic. And frustrating. And exhausting. They had to become technology wizards, Zoom screen DJs, counselors, cheerleaders and teachers all in one. Workloads doubled and stress levels quadrupled. Nothing in their training had prepared them for this.
But as the end of the school year approaches, many are looking at what they’ve learned about teaching and about themselves during the pandemic and thinking about how they’ll incorporate that in their classes once something close to normal returns.
For Walker and many teachers like her, the past year has only confirmed for them the importance of their jobs. And being a present and encouraging educator for their students has never been more necessary. After a year of teaching virtually, Walker says she will make extra efforts to connect and check in with her students at every opportunity when they return.
“I don’t see myself leaving this profession at all and I want to continue to show them that they can make it out, they can find a path out of whatever environment they’re in,” said Walker, who is eager to return to a physical classroom. “Teaching is who I am and what I do.”
Mackenzie Adams teaches kindergarten in a small school district not far from Seattle. In the fall, Adams became an Internet sensation when videos of her enthusiastic virtual lessons went viral, and parents and teachers across the country applauded her vibrant approach.
Adams, 24, said she and her colleagues had to adjust on the fly.
“We really had to shift our thinking and shift the way we do lessons when we went online,” Adams said. “Even veteran teachers were back to being new first-year teachers with this whole new way of teaching.”
Being enthusiastic is an essential trait for kindergarten teachers in normal times. But online, Adams said, “you almost have to like triple that level of enthusiasm and engagement.”
That approach works, but it’s also wearying. Adams thinks that both she and the students are experiencing screen fatigue. But it hasn’t dampened her desire to teach.
The experiences of the past year, “really just made me want to teach more,” Adams said. “I can’t wait to be back in the classroom with my students … and really making those in-person connections, the social aspect of it all. And I think that’s really what’s missing right now.”
Aleta Margolis, founder and president of the Center for Inspired Teaching, said this past year should provide ideas and opportunities for teaching going forward.
“The best thing educators can do right now is to gather as much information as possible about what students have experienced over the past year — their learning, their worries and their ideas — and take that data seriously and build on it as we return to in-person learning,” Margolis said.
— Joe Heim
Connected at home
Laptops and hotspots likely to stick around
Before the pandemic began, millions of students got by without a computer or Internet connection at home. The “homework gap,” by which some students could Google their way through research papers and others could not, was derided by policymakers but, like so many other inequities in education, it persisted.
Over the last year, by necessity, the vast majority of students have been connected. Millions of devices and hotspots have been purchased and distributed. The question now is: Will this new, more equitable arrangement persist?
Most say yes.
In Texas, officials are looking into a plan that would bring broadband connections to every K-12 student beyond the pandemic, funded by a combination of state and local dollars.
The coronavirus rescue package signed into law by Biden includes more than $7 billion for the Federal Communications Commission to fund at-home Internet connections and devices through the E-rate program, which typically pays for service in school buildings and libraries. Pressure is mounting on the FCC to also use regular E-rate funding to connect students at home.
The FCC has yet to rule. But acting commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has called the homework gap the most important issue of digital equity facing the nation and said the pandemic provided the incentive needed to finally address it.
“The days when out-of-school learning required only paper and pencil are long gone. Today, students live their lives online and use Internet-based resources for so much of modern education,” she wrote last spring.
Some argue an expansion would put too much pressure on the Universal Service Fund that pays for service and is funded by telecom user fees, but proponents say it’s urgent. A change in the FCC’s rules depends in part on the agency’s definition of “educational purposes.” Since the program began in 1996, that has been defined as inside school buildings.
“Our argument is even connecting people off-campus can be for educational purposes,” said John Windhausen Jr., founder and executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition. “Education does not only happen at school. Kids do homework at night and that’s education.”
For now, he hopes that some schools use the $7 billion in new E-rate funding to go beyond handing out hotspot devices to families who need them, and to deploy new wireless networks that can serve many homes and live beyond the pandemic.
In the meantime, school districts have invested millions of dollars to buy devices for students that should last for several years, and students have become accustomed to doing schoolwork at home. Some also see benefits beyond direct education. Parents whose schedules make coming to the school difficult can now easily arrange a 10- or 15-minute online conversation with a teacher.
It adds up to a no-turning-back moment, said Richard Culatta, chief executive of the International Society for Technology in Education, a large nonprofit focused on helping teachers use technology to improve quality of learning.
“There’s been a huge amount of work to build out the infrastructure,” he said. He estimates that the share of districts that provide every student with a device has jumped from about one-third to about 80 percent. It was necessitated by the pandemic but will persist, he said, especially if schools figure out how to best use the technology to advance learning most effectively. “I don’t think there’s a question the technology will stay around.”
— Laura Meckler
D-plus school buildings
Pandemic spotlight offers real chance for reform
Christina Headrick has pored over more than 100 scientific studies, questioned a dozen air-quality experts, filed five public records requests and launched a parent group and website dedicated to ensuring a safe return to classrooms in Arlington, Va. — especially when it comes to ventilation.
The mother of two children is one of thousands of people — parents and administrators alike — suddenly paying attention to school buildings after the pandemic placed a bright, unforgiving spotlight on the crumbling status of America’s school facilities and their often outdated heating, cooling and ventilation systems.
In the short-term, administrators are commissioning outside reviews of their air quality, installing portable air cleaners and advising teachers on how to maximize airflow (advice that often boils down to, “Open your windows”). But they are also requesting millions in funding from school boards and town councils to make upgrades over the next several years, that are decades overdue.
The difference is, now, their requests are actually getting approved.
“We’ve proposed air-quality improvements in our schools, and ventilation improvements, ever since I’ve been superintendent,” said Tom Moore, who has led West Hartford Public Schools in Connecticut for close to a decade. Fully half of his school buildings, constructed in the 1950s, “don’t have anything at all” when it comes to ventilation, he said. It’s just “single-pane windows, to let the air come in and out.”
But before, he said, “there has always been taxpayers with concerns, and pushback: ‘Are you just looking for air conditioning?’”
Not this time. Moore’s proposal to spend $57 million over the next 10 years upgrading — in some cases, installing — air circulation, heating and cooling systems at nine of its 11 elementary schools sailed past the school board on an unanimous, bipartisan vote earlier this year.
In Chicago, the public school system has spent $100 million upgrading the district’s HVAC systems since last spring. Chief operating officer Arnaldo Rivera said that amid the pandemic, a quality assurance team began checking air flow and cleanliness against industry standards every month at every one of Chicago’s more than 530 school buildings — a practice they will continue indefinitely. Likewise, every school will get a periodic air-quality assessment with special new devices.
“We want to standardize this, so that moving forward, our buildings always meet the standard of warm, safe and dry,” Rivera said.
The Chicago Teachers Union, however, has been sharply critical of these efforts, saying more must be done to ensure a quality and healthy learning environment. Chicago Public Schools has a $3.5 billion backlog of facilities repairs on its campuses, and the average age of its buildings is 80 years old.
In its 2021 report card grading the nation’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave public schools a D-plus, estimating more than half of districts need to update or replace their heating, cooling and air filtration systems. The problems are worst in low-income districts that are often majority minority, experts say.
“Every child in our system deserves to have clean air in their classrooms, now and for the long term,” said Headrick, the parent volunteer.
A lot hinges on what happens with federal funding, said Mary Filardo of the 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for the modernization of public school facilities. Biden’s coronavirus relief plan sets aside roughly $123 billion for K-12 schools, and Filardo would like to see at least $10 billion of that go to building upgrades — although how the money is used will most likely be decided by state and district leaders, and could vary widely throughout the nation.
“We have the opportunity to really make some improvements,” Filardo said, “with the light that has been shone on this.”
— Hannah Natanson
Who attends, who is absent
What it means to be in school is in flux.
For decades, students took their places at desks in classrooms, as teachers recorded who was there and who was not. But as schools shuttered and students began to learn remotely, the conventions of taking attendance through “seat time” fell away.
School systems scrambled to come up with new ways to define attendance in remote school. Was it enough just to log in for the day or tune into a Zoom class?
States took varied approaches.
In Connecticut, students need to spend half of the day in learning activities, including live classes, independent work and time logged into an electronic system. In Alaska, they are counted as present whether or not they log on, with the state viewingremote learning as similar to a correspondence course.
“The pandemic wreaked havoc with measuring attendance,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national nonprofit initiative that has tracked state policies.
The hodgepodge may well continue this fall, as many school systems continue to offer families the option of remote learning. Beyond that, a number of school systems are also planning virtual programs as a more lasting effort, for students who need or want to learn that way.
For many school leaders, the issue was a balancing act as they tried to support students who may be in crisis — as covid-19 has claimed lives and left many workers strapped and jobless — but also draw them into school.
Without reliable ways to track attendance, it’s harder to recognize patterns in chronic absenteeism — a major worry before the pandemic that is worsening, experts say. High rates of absenteeism are linked to academic failure and dropping out of school.
In Connecticut, described as the first state to produce monthly statewide data on the issue, the percentage of chronically absent students as of January was 21.3 percent — a 75 percent jump over a year earlier.
Harder hit were some of the most vulnerable students. The rate of chronic absenteeism for English learners more than doubled to 36 percent, and the rate for students from free meal-eligible families shot up by 78 percent, to roughly the same level.
“It’s pretty troubling,” Chang said.
Some say it’s past time to rethink attendance more broadly, to focus on mastery of skills and content.
“It’s not about seat time,” said Robert Hull, president of the National Association of State Boards of Education. “It’s about engagement. I think as a result of this pandemic we can see some innovation in that area.”
— Donna St. George
Changing the ‘butt-in-seats’ formula
Parents, students and teachers were hyper-focused during the pandemic on when shuttered schools would reopen, but John Kuhn and other district superintendents were sweating out something else too: state funding.
Because most state funding formulas are based in part on how many students are in schools, district leaders worried about pandemic attendance drops. Less funding would mean cuts in programs and personnel. And the districts that would be hit the hardest would be those with the poorest and neediest students.
Kuhn, superintendent of Mineral Wells Independent School District in Texas, said he and his colleagues were relieved on March 4 when Gov. Gregg Abbott (R) announced that schools would be “held harmless” from funding cuts for the rest of the 2020-21 school year. Kuhn said some 130 students of about 3,200 — a little more than 4 percent — have stopped coming to school (when during a normal year almost none do), and Abbott said districts where students stopped coming to school would not be penalized.
Some policymakers began to consider permanent changes that would meet the changed education landscape.
“The way we educate kids now is new,” said Texas state Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin), who has introduced legislation to change Texas’s funding formula — from being based on the number of kids in seats on certain days to enrollment — so that districts would get more state money.
Referring to remote learning that began during the pandemic and will last beyond the crisis, she said: “We are going to be doing a lot more of that now and this emerging way of teaching our kids through blended learning is not a butt-in-desks model of education and should not be funded that way.”
Public schools are funded primarily by local funds, mostly from property taxes, combined with state funding — though the divisions are different among states. Because wealthy areas pay more in property taxes, they get more of this funding than high-poverty districts. The federal government supplies about 10 percent of overall funding to try to make up the gap, but it usually doesn’t.
A majority of the state funding formulas involve attendance counts — but there are a host of ways and times during the school year to count kids, and the differences can mean plus or minus millions of dollars a year for districts. For example, some states use average daily attendance, and others take attendance in the fall and spring and average the two. Colorado uses an attendance count from a single day in October. Texas is one of seven states that uses average daily attendance.
Even before the pandemic, attendance methods put high-poverty districts at a disadvantage; children from low-income and unstable homes are more likely to be absent because of limited access to transportation, untreated health issues and other problems.
Hinojosa said she wants to use enrollment, not attendance, as the basis of Texas’s funding formula in part because districts have to budget for enrolled students — not for the changing number of students who show up daily.
With most public school students in Texas from minority and economically disadvantaged families, she said: “Our districts are getting shortchanged and our schools are getting shortchanged and so are our students.”
Now some districts are thinking ahead for the next school year beginning in the fall — but nobody knows for sure how many missing students will return.
— Valerie Strauss
Wanted: New ways to assess students
A few days before Christmas last year, many of the country’s state schools chiefs met over Zoom to address a foundation of modern school reform: standardized testing. The consensus was that U.S. schools need better ways to assess students — as soon as possible.
For nearly 20 years, schools have been mandated by federal law to test most K-12 students in math and English language arts and use the results in an “accountability system” intended to close the achievement gap between White and most minority students.
The exams have long been controversial. Supporters say standardized testing is vital to know how the most challenged students are doing. Critics say they don’t reveal valid, useful data and perpetuate educational inequity.
The coronavirus pandemic jolted the country’s fixation with standardized testing, bringing the first break in the annual spring exam ritual since the No Child Left Behind era began in 2002.
With schools closed last spring, the Trump administration told states they did not have to administer them. States would have to manage without the test results, used for high-stakes decisions such as teacher evaluation and A-F grading of individual schools.
Enter the Biden administration. In February, it announced that tests must be given in 2021 — but could be shortened and administered as late as the fall, and the results did not have to be used for accountability purposes. Education Department official Ian Rosenbaum said in a letter to state school chiefs that the data is important to collect because “it is urgent to understand the impact of covid-19 on learning.”
How the scores will be used remains unclear. Florida education chief Richard Corcoran said he would wait to see if there are score anomalies before deciding. Ohio, Colorado and other states decided not to use scores in teacher evaluations for 2020-21, and Arizona said it wouldn’t use them to assign A-F grades to schools.
The administration’s decision to allow states to go a second year without using test scores for high-stakes decisions could spur the drive for new assessments, said Bob Schaeffer, acting executive director of the nonprofit National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which fights the misuse of standardized tests.
Once “we see that not having high-stakes assessments for a year or two did not harm educational quality or equity — as the pandemic itself most certainly did — the door will be opened for broader assessment reforms,” he said.
The 2015 K-12 Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor law to No Child Left Behind, provided for a pilot program to create more varied and valid assessments.
That is what the state chiefs talked about last Dec. 23 at the event hosted by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which brought together the leaders with Biden-Harris transition officials.
There were, according to participants, nearly unanimous calls for more opportunity to create assessments focused on “authentic learning” that can provide real-time information to direct student learning.
“I like to think this could be an opportunity to rethink the whole” standardized testing system, said Joshua P. Starr, former superintendent of Montgomery County schools in Maryland and now chief executive of PDK International, a professional organization for educators.
— Valerie Strauss
Illustrations by iStock
Story editing by Kathryn Tolbert. Copy editing by Jamie Zega. Design by Beth Broadwater.
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