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Noteworthy headlines from the education wire
  • Democracy Prep Founder Pleads Guilty in Fraud Scheme

    By Kevin Mahnken | 1 day ago

    Seth Andrew, founder of a sprawling charter school network and a former Obama administration official, pled guilty in federal court Friday to one of wire fraud. The charge was in connection to a plot to steal more than $200,000 from Andrew’s own Democracy Prep schools.

    Andrew has agreed to pay restitution to Democracy Prep. He could face up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced on April 14. 


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    By that time, nearly a year will have passed since the school reform giant was first arrested and charged with fraud, money laundering, and making false statements to a bank. Prosecutors from the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York accused Andrew of misappropriating the money in order to secure a better mortgage rate for a million-dollar Manhattan apartment.

    Related

    Charter Founder Seth Andrew Charged with Stealing over $200,000 from Civics-Focused Network He Created

    “Seth Andrew, a former White House advisor, admitted today to devising a scheme to steal from the very same schools he helped create,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams in a statement. “Andrew now faces time in federal prison for abusing his position and robbing those he promised to help.” 

    Andrew first launched Democracy Prep in 2005 at a single middle school in Harlem. The fledgling charter gained interest from families — and powerful political allies, such as then-U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel — through its curricular focus on civics instruction and democratic engagement. In a little over decade, his brainchild had expanded to campuses across New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, Texas, Washington, D.C., and Nevada. 

    As their enrollment grew to over 6,000 students system-wide, the schools earned praise for their academic performance and impressive record of sending graduates to college. Additionally, a 2018 study from the Mathematica research group found that Democracy Prep students were much more likely to vote, and to be registered to vote, than otherwise similar peers.

    Related

    Teaching Democracy: How One School Network Has Baked Civics & Activism Into Its DNA — and Produced Graduates Who Are More Likely to Vote

    Andrew left the organization in 2013 for a position in the U.S. Department of Education. But he remained a brand ambassador for Democracy Prep, seldom spotted in public without his yellow cap bearing the network’s logo. 

    He was photographed in that hat in security footage from one of the banks where he improperly withdrew funds from three Democracy Prep school accounts. By New York state law, every charter school must maintain substantial funds in escrow in the event that they are unexpectedly forced to dissolve. 

    In a statement provided to The 74, Andrew’s attorneys, Tim Doherty and Edward Kim, said that their client had “worked tirelessly to expand educational, democratic, and technological opportunity to disenfranchised communities around the world.”

    “Seth’s life has always been motivated by a civic mission, and he deeply regrets his past mistakes. He has, with courage, accepted responsibility for them. With the help and support of his family and loved ones, Seth looks forward to deepening his commitment to service and innovation in the next chapter of his life.”

    Related

    Eager to Distance Itself From Founder’s Legal Woes, New College Strives to Rescue a ‘Good Idea’ for Low-Income Students

    In an email, a Democracy Prep spokesperson wrote that Andrew “will make full restitution to our institution for all of the money he stole. We are glad that this sad chapter is over and thankful to the authorities for their hard work on this case.”

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  • ‘Government Speech’ or Private Prayer?: Supreme Court Takes Case of Football Coach Fired Over Giving Thanks After Games

    By Linda Jacobson | 1 day ago

    The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case of a Bremerton, Washington, high school football coach who was fired after he refused to stop holding post-game prayers on the field. Joseph Kennedy sued his school district in 2016, claiming officials denied him his constitutional right to religious freedom.

    The district said students felt pressured to join Kennedy’s moments of prayer. They argued that because the coach was on the job, officials would have appeared to be endorsing the activity, putting them at risk of violating the First Amendment’s separation between church and state.


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    The decision to hear Kennedy v. Bremerton School District puts yet another case on schools and religion before the court’s conservative supermajority. The court has already heard oral arguments this term in a Maine lawsuit over public funding for private religious schools. At stake in Kennedy is the extent to which public school employees can practice their religion at work. Attorneys for the district said officials were protecting students’ religious freedom by ending what one called a “pray to play” arrangement. But Kennedy’s legal team warns that a decision in favor of the school district could make any expression of religion at school, such as wearing a yarmulke or bowing one’s head in the lunchroom, grounds for dismissal. 

    “There is clarity that the court really needs to provide here,” said Jeremy Dys, an attorney with First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm representing Kennedy. “There’s always tension between the administrators trying to stamp out religion, and coaches and teachers who want to engage in their religious beliefs.”

    This is the second time Kennedy’s case has reached the high court. The court opted not to hear it in 2019 because the facts regarding Kennedy’s dismissal were unclear. But even then, four justices — Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — signaled that they would be open to hearing it in the future, saying the lower court’s “understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling.”

    That invitation could bode well for Kennedy this time around, said Joshua Dunn, a political science professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. 

    “My initial reaction is that the court is going to side with Kennedy since some of the justices already laid out the legal roadmap for him a couple years ago,” he said. 

    Dunn wrote in 2019 that should Kennedy get another shot, the case could lead to a decision that “moderately” expands educators free speech rights or to a “truly landmark” ruling regarding how far governments have to go to accommodate employees’ religious practices.

    Since then, a sixth conservative, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, has joined the court, leading some public school supporters to agree that the justices will lean Kennedy’s way.

    “I think, given the makeup of the court and their decisions thus far on religious freedom, that the district will not be successful,” said Sasha Pudleski, advocacy director at AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “But I hope I’m wrong.”

    In 2020, the court ruled in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, that excluding a religious school from a tax credit scholarship program simply because it was religious was unconstitutional. Last year, the court ruled unanimously that a Catholic social services agency, had a right to exclude same-sex couples from becoming foster parents. And while the court has not yet ruled in the Maine religious school choice case, conservative justices appeared ready to side with the plaintiffs during oral arguments in December.

    Related

    ‘Equal Treatment, not Special Treatment’: Conservative Supreme Court Justices Appear Ready to Strike Down Religious Barriers to Public School Choice Funding

    ‘Impressionable students’

    The Kennedy case gives the court another chance to weigh in the issue of religious freedom. But the Bremerton district argues that students’ religious freedoms were compromised, not Kennedy’s. 

    “No student should ever be made to feel excluded — whether it’s in the classroom or on the football field — because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers or fellow students,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which represents the district, said in a statement. “This case is about protecting impressionable students who felt pressured by their coach to participate repeatedly in public prayer.”

    The district offered to give Kennedy a private space on campus to express his Christian beliefs, which included giving thanks after games. But Kennedy turned them down and publicized the fact that he was going to continue his prayers.

    For that reason, the district argued that the coach “was not engaging in private prayer, but was instead engaging in public speech of an overtly religious nature,” according to the lawsuit.

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    The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling in favor of the district, looked to a 2006 Supreme Court decision, Garcetti v. Ceballos in making its decision. In that case, the court said governments can discipline public employees for what they say while they are performing their jobs. 

    Laser, with Americans United, urged the Supreme Court not to “fall for” the argument that Kennedy was praying silently. 

    But First Liberty Institute, in its appeal to the court, argued there’s a difference between government speech and private speech, and that Kennedy was still engaging in personal prayers. To suggest that everything Kennedy did while at work was government speech, they wrote, is an “overbroad job description” that other courts have rejected.Republican attorneys general from 24 states agreed. In a brief, they predicted “grave effects on public employees and employers alike, especially within the realm of public education” if the lower court ruling stands.

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  • NYC Mayor, Teachers Union Head, Schools Chancellor Appear at Odds Over Remote Learning Option Amid Omicron Chaos

    By Jo Napolitano | 6 days ago

    Updated, Jan. 13

    In remarks where he took a swipe at Chicago’s recent labor dispute that shut down its public schools, New York City Mayor Eric Adams said Thursday he was “willing to sit down and entertain” with the teachers union a temporary remote learning option.

    While the mayor referred to United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew as his “good friend,” he did not indicate that the city and the union had reached an agreement on what a “quality” remote option would look like. A sticking point may be whether the union would allow classroom teachers to livestream their in-person lessons to remote students.

    More than once, Adams described any possible remote learning option as temporary and strongly reiterated his position that students needed to be in school. “We’ve lost two years of education. Two years” he said. “The fallout is unbelievable. Math and English. English is is not as bad as math, but the numbers with math, they are frightening.”

    One day after Mayor Eric Adams said it would take six months to develop a solid remote learning program, the head of the New York City teachers union pressed for quicker action and the schools chancellor said he was working on a plan.

    But it might be at odds with how teachers want to deliver virtual learning, leaving students, parents and educators unclear about a path forward as the highly transmissible Omicron variant sweeps through the state and nation.


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    “We’ve called for a remote learning program since September, and we believe we need to do this,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said. “I think Mayor Adams is really thinking it through, because it is just the fact there’s over 200,000 children who haven’t been in school for over two weeks.”

    Mulgrew’s remarks came during a town hall meeting Wednesday evening with roughly 15,000 UFT members and again Thursday morning on Good Day New York

    “We need to set something up, because we hope this is the last wave,” he said, “but we do not know if it is. So, I think it’s time for the city really to think about it and contemplate it.”

    Adams’s ​​estimate that it will take roughly six months for city schools to include virtual options would effectively push remote learning off until the end of the school year. He made the comments Wednesday during a conference call with officials, including more than two dozen city and state legislators who sent him a letter in the first week of January calling for a pivot to remote learning through Jan. 18 to slow the spread of the virus.

    Related

    Adams: No Remote Learning Option in NYC Schools for 6 Months

    Meanwhile, Chalkbeat reported, schools Chancellor David Banks told a parent advisory council Thursday morning that the city was in talks with the union to create a remote option for this year, but needs to iron out the details. 

    “My goal is to create an option that will take us at the very least to the end of the school year,” Banks said at a virtual meeting. “If I could figure out a way to do a remote option starting tomorrow I would … It’s not quite as simple as that because you have to negotiate this stuff with the unions.”

    NYC Schools Chancellor David Banks and Mayor Eric Adams speak at Concourse Village Elementary School in the Bronx Jan. 3, the first day back from the winter holiday break. (Tayfun Coskun/Getty Images)

    According to Chalkbeat, Banks suggested that one way to have remote learning immediately would be to do away with an agreement with the union that prohibits schools from requiring teachers to livestream their lessons and urged parents to take their demands for a remote option directly to their local UFT chapter leaders. 

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    The back-and-forth was prompted by one of the most chaotic weeks in NYC schools since the pandemic first shut down classes in March 2020. Fear of the Omicron variant sparked widespread school walkouts by NYC students, who say they feel unsafe on campus and at risk of contracting the virus and bringing it home to their families. Worried parents have also been keeping their children home in unprecedented numbers: The New York City Department of Education reported Wednesday’s daily attendance at 76.34 percent. 

    The figure is a marked improvement from last week when more than 300,000 students skipped class. 

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    ‘People are Coming to School Positive’: Thousands of New York City Students Stage Walkout, Demand Remote Learning Options

    While some reports show the city might have already hit its peak, the infection rate remains troubling with roughly 40,000 new cases each day.  The fast-spreading Omicron variant now has scores of teachers in the nation’s largest school district calling in sick

    Studies have generally shown remote learning has led to academic, social and emotional harm compared to in-person instruction. In its earlier incarnation in NYC schools, it also posed staffing challenges with one set of teachers instructing children remotely while another set worked with them in the classroom. 

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    Mulgrew, whose union represents nearly 200,000 public schools educators and school-related professionals, among others, said the city needs a reliable means to connect with those students who are unable or unwilling to come to campus. 

    “We have to make sure we are getting to all of the children because the learning loss we’ve seen already … is quite large,” he said. “But on the remote option, we don’t want to go back to 65 percent of the children staying home. So, for parents, I’m going to ask again, please if we have this option use it judiciously. And again, think about giving us consent for testing your child and really contemplate about getting your child vaccinated. Because these are two of the things the school system needs right now for keeping your child and all of the children safe.”

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  • Majority of Americans Back Remote Learning to Protect Children, Teachers from COVID Spread, New Poll Finds

    By Marianna McMurdock | 6 days ago

    More than half of Americans favor remote learning to protect students and teachers’ “health and safety” as COVID surges, according to a new Harris Poll conducted for Axios. 


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    The findings, consistent among all racial and ethnic groups Axios said, came as students, teachers and parents in New York City and Chicago protested in-person learning.    

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    ‘People are Coming to School Positive’: Thousands of New York City Students Stage Walkout, Demand Remote Learning Options

    Of the 2,093 Americans surveyed over the weekend of Jan. 7-9, 56 percent said avoiding COVID exposure was more important than keeping schools open. 

    Here are the poll’s key findings: 

    Parents are even more likely to support distance learning amid the surge

    Of those polled, 62 percent of parents with school-aged children favored remote learning. Preliminary findings from The 74’s parent survey found similar results: 60 percent favored a remote option. 

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    Republicans more hesitant to close schools 

    Differences in how Americans responded to the poll fell squarely along party lines: Only 37 percent of Republican respondents backed remote learning, compared to 70 percent of Democrats. 

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    Findings also exposed generational and income divides

    Younger, lower-income respondents more frequently chose to protect “health and safety” over in-person learning — with more than 60 percent of Gen Z, millennial and Gen X respondents believing schools should move remote. Of boomers, aged 57 or older, 48 percent responded the same.

    The poll showed differences along income as well, with 63 percent of Americans earning under $50,000 annually favoring distance learning.  Those earning more than $100,000 were nearly divided, with 49 percent favoring remote and 51 percent backing in-person learning.

    Axios noted a key limitation to the findings is that “risk tolerance exists along a spectrum,” but respondents were only offered a choice between prioritizing “health and safety” or in-person learning. 

    Parents who opt to send children to in-person classes presumably may feel that “health and safety” is prioritized inside schools, while others believe daily exposure to hundreds of people is not a risk their family is willing or able to take. 

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  • 5 Takeaways from Historic 10-Week Columbia University Student Workers’ Strike

    By Marianna McMurdock | January 11, 2022

    The largest labor strike in the country, the longest higher education has seen in a decade, ended Friday. 


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    After 10 weeks, nearly 3,000 undergraduates, researchers, instructors and graduate teaching assistants at Columbia University celebrated higher wages, expanded child and dental care, and greater protections against harassment and discrimination. 

    Over the past year, relationships between student workers and administrators became increasingly frayed at Columbia, one of the country’s wealthiest private universities with a $14 billion endowment. Many of the workers described living paycheck to paycheck, securing food stamps and public benefits to survive, with some earning just $15 an hour. 

    “We are thrilled to reach an agreement with Columbia after seven years of building toward this first contract. What our members achieved is impressive, but this is only the start,” Nadeem Mansour, bargaining committee member and PhD candidate, said in the Student Workers of Columbia union statement. 

    Wage increases featured in the proposed 4-year labor contract (Columbia University)

    From Nov. 3 to Jan. 7, the 3,000-member SWU, a United Auto Workers Local 2110 union, protested with support from faculty and continued striking amid perceived retaliation from administrators. 

    The newly proposed four-year contract significantly expands working protections, including: 

    • Pay raises ranging 6 to 9 percent for PhD students;
    • Increased minimum wage for hourly research and instructional workers from $15 to $21 effective this January and $22.50 by August 2024
    • $5,000 stipends for child care, to increase $500 annually 
    • Access to an emergency health fund of at least $300,000
    • Coverage for 75% of dental premiums 
    • The right to outside, third-party abitration in the event of discrimination or harrassment claims

    SWU members will vote to approve or reject the contract late this month, with a  decision expected by Jan. 28. 

    But passage is not certain. 

    Union members are prepared to reject the contract if the University does not compensate for completing fall semester teaching responsibilities. Without the “back pay,” hundreds of undergraduates would also go without feedback and final grades in graduate-run classes.

    The strike marked SWU’s second in less than a year. Previous efforts to solidify better working conditions came to a halt last spring, when members rejected the University’s proposed contract.

    Below, we’ve compiled five facts to remember from the last few months of higher education labor organizing: 

    1. The strike solidified the role and strength of student unions in higher ed.

    Though higher education institutions have relied on student labor for centuries, Columbia’s contract would become one of the first 10 to exist at private American universities.

    It would also be the first to recognize all undergraduate teaching and course assistants. 

    The union’s fight resonated well beyond the walls of higher education. New York comptroller urged university President Lee Bollinger to prioritize negotiations and finalize a “fair contract” in late December, for the “greater good of New York City.” 

    U.S. congress members Mark Takano (D-CA), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) also expressed support for striking workers. 

    2. Threatening emails from University admin only fueled support.

    In early December, an email from the University’s human resources department stated, “Please note that striking student officers who return to work after December 10, 2021, will be appointed/assigned to suitable positions if available.”

    The likely scare tactic appeared to have the opposite effect. Immediately following, hundreds showed up in protest on Columbia’s central campus, blocking entrances. 

    Some say the email galvanized more faculty to support the union’s plight, with roughly 100 joining in protest on Dec. 8. 

    “That’s part of what I think is driving more faculty to come out. It was retaliatory, it was inappropriate and it was hugely disturbing,” Susan Witte, a professor at the School of Social Work, told Ashley Wong of the New York Times.

    3. Many question the legality of Columbia withholding doctoral stipends, not just salary wages, during the strike.

    Doctoral students are missing roughly $8,000 — separate from teaching salaries withheld from striking — from the fall semester. The money can make or break students’ ability to pay rent, food and living essentials. 

    When the union voted to strike, members were under the impression that the stipends would be guaranteed given they compensate students for scholarship, not labor.

    Many await word from the University, falling further into debt and possibly forced to disenroll because of the financial stress. 

    4. Students on strike relied on mutual aid for rent, food, child care and healthcare costs. 

    “SWC members are thousands of dollars in debt from the strike and need immediate support to pay late fees, rent, and bills,” reads SWU’s Twitter, soliciting support for their hardship fund.

    The mutual aid fund has raised $378,392 to date, yet split among 3,000 union members, would only make a dent in a week’s worth of food.

    PhD candidates’ compensation packages were also up to $18,000 below a living wage before striking. And strike funds, made accessible through United Auto Workers, were capped at $275 weekly

    The financial strain has driven “back pay” and stipend reimbursement to the forefront of debate as the union enters its discussion period before the end-January vote.  

    5. This marks the end of the largest strike in the U.S. and longest higher education strike in more than a decade.

    Fed up with poor wages, costly healthcare amid a pandemic, increasing tuition, mounting student debt amid a host of other woes, students organized en masse in 2021. A swell of strikes and renegotiated contracts made headlines, most notably at New York University and Harvard.

    Yet the sheer length of Columbia’s strike — 65 days, which found students gathered in freezing picket lines — sets it apart from past education labor actions. 

    “There is no doubt that this has been a challenging period for the University, yet all who were involved in collective bargaining shared the common goal of creating a stronger Columbia…” Provost Mary Boyce said in a statement

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  • ‘No One Wins in This Scenario’: As Chicago Schools Prepare to Reopen, Rift Between Mayor and Union Deepens

    By Linda Jacobson | January 11, 2022

    Decisions to shift to remote learning in Chicago will be made on a school-by-school basis, depending on teacher and student absenteeism, and the district and union will work together to enroll more families in a voluntary COVID-19 testing program, under an agreement reached Monday night.


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    But the Chicago Teachers Union walked away from its four-day “work stoppage” without much of what it was hoping to achieve, including district-wide triggers for closing schools and a mandatory student testing program that required parents to opt-out. One official lamented that workers gave up four days’ wages in exchange for concessions like increasing the supply of masks to schools.

    “We sacrificed pay for face masks,” Stacy Davis Gates, political and legislative director for the union, told reporters.

    The plan, which won’t be released until the union’s full membership votes this week, also includes efforts to reduce staff shortages by adding pay incentives to increase the substitute pool when teachers are out, and stipends for employees who help register families for testing and vaccination appointments. Staff members will also be trained to conduct contact tracing.

    “We understand that our relationship to our families is a critical part of engaging in this testing program,” added Jennifer Johnson, CTU’s chief of staff. The goal, she said, is to sign up 100 percent of families by Feb. 1.

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    Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who faces reelection next year, also promised to consider the perspectives of parents should there be another management-labor breakdown. “We will never, never not have you at the table,” she said. While some parents expressed deep concerns over safety in keeping their children home after the holiday break, others argued that remote learning was detrimental for their children and wanted to see better cooperation between the mayor and the union. Some also agreed with the city that making decisions about closures on a school-by-school basis makes more sense at this point in the pandemic because vaccinations are available and Omicron is less likely to cause serious illness.

    But observers said the conflict didn’t leave either side in a good place.

    “No one wins in this scenario. Parents and students lost with five days of disruption to their schooling routine,” said Bradley Marianno, an assistant education professor of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, adding that the district and teachers union “further solidified” a relationship in which they “only operate in crisis versus collaboration.”

    The agreement, he said, will likely make schools “marginally safer,” but strikes and threats of strikes every time the district and the union negotiate are bound to wear on parents and educators.

    The conflict also drew attention to the low vaccination rate among Chicago students. Less than a third of the district’s 340,000 students are fully vaccinated and rates vary widely at schools across the district. 

    As cases spiked in December, “We began to have an increasable sense of foreboding,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said during the union’s press conference. 

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    While almost two thirds of the union’s delegates approved the agreement, Sharkey suggested the rank and file members might not be satisfied.

    “We don’t try to sell people on the benefits of the agreement that are not there,” he said. “Our members are grown ups, and we understand sometimes you don’t have a guarantee in advance.”

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  • Here We Go Again: Parents Share Frustrations and Triumphs as Remote Learning Returns

    By Meghan Gallagher | January 10, 2022

    For many parents across the country, back to school 2022 is looking and feeling a lot like spring 2020 all over again.

    From kitchen counters and living room couches, their kids are home signing onto laptops and other devices for virtual classes as Omicron disrupted plans to open many schools nationwide — or parents kept their children home voluntarily. 


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    While remote learning offered some parents and educators peace of mind as COVID surged, its return is also full of troublespots and roadblocks, from finding childcare to connectivity issues, to overseeing their kids’ classes while working from home.

    The 74 bent our ears towards parents: First we created a survey and asked parents what options they want and how their districts are handling the latest COVID crisis. Then we turned to social media for real-life updates from those on the frontlines at home.

    The poll, which has received responses from 146 parents so far, showed that most want their children learning in-person:

    But parents were divided about whether schools should offer a remote option:

    Here’s what the moms and dads of America are saying about having their kids at home again:

    That look when you realize you’re facing another stint of remote learning:

    With his child once again learning in a tiny New York City apartment steps away from his bed, this parent was wondering what year it was. 

    This mom’s tweet reminded us that it’s not always easy learning remotely, so  students are calling on the adults in their lives for extra support.

    Scattered throughout The 74 survey were a few small victories — like this note from a Colorado parent:

    Logging onto school from the kitchen table wasn’t the return from holiday break these kids expected, but they were still excited to see their friends and teachers virtually. 

    In the 74’s survey, many parents expressed concern for their children’s safety as a reason for keeping them home, but were also worried over the lack of the quality of remote learning.

    This mom captured how her son is handling the transition from holiday break to remote learning, and offered his teachers an apology: “It’s not you. He’s struggling.”

    Knowing that many kids grapple with learning from a screen, this mom/educator took to Twitter to share top tips for navigating remote learning:

    One Virginia parent told The 74 their children have turned to sports for social interaction during remote learning.

    Feeling for those who don’t have the flexibility to work from home with their kids, this Georgia mom says she would have quit her job if her son weren’t old enough to stay home alone for remote learning.

    Going remote puts parents who don’t work from home in a pinch for childcare, as James Fogarty noted in The 74’s survey.

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    Ask the Doctor: Navigating the ‘New Math’ of Omicron in Schools

    So, should schools still be open or is remote learning safer? This parent admits they don’t know what’s best — but knows how their child feels about it.

    Do you want to share your family’s experience with returning to class during the Omicron surge? Take our poll! Click here if you are having trouble viewing the poll.

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  • Ask the Doctor: Navigating the ‘New Math’ of Omicron in Schools

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | January 7, 2022

    It’s a tricky moment in the pandemic for parents.

    Mere weeks ago — though it may feel like a lifetime — K-12 operations seemed to be moving toward something of a pandemic equilibrium. Studies had confirmed that COVID spread less in classrooms than the surrounding community, children as young as 5 had gained access to vaccinations and, according to the White House, 99 percent of schools were open for in-person learning.


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    Then came the Omicron variant, sweeping over the country like a tsunami and plunging nearly all aspects of everyday life back into deep uncertainty.

    In the weeks since, daily reported COVID cases in the U.S. have exploded, breaking pandemic records. More children are being hospitalized with the virus than ever before. And positivity rates among school communities have reached levels that were previously unheard of: 18 percent in Chicago, 25 percent in Yonkers, 36 percent in Detroit.

    While most districts reopened as planned after the holidays, nearly 4,800 schools closed their buildings for all or part of the first week of January, according to the data service Burbio. 

    Even where classrooms did reopen, many parents chose not to return their children. In New York City, for example, nearly a third of students did not show up on the first day back from break and on Friday when parents were also dealing with a morning snowfall, attendance plummeted to 44.5 percent.

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    As COVID Cases Break Records and Thousands of Schools Close, Families and Educators Struggle — Again — Over Keeping Classrooms Open

    The unprecedented case numbers usher in a “new math,” in the words of Harvard University infectious disease specialist Jacob Lemieux, for understanding and navigating life as the variant circulates.

    “It’s likely that Omicron COVID is going to be so ubiquitous that every child will be exposed repeatedly at school and elsewhere,” Rebecca Wurtz, professor of health policy at the University of Minnesota, told The 74.

    For many parents, that may be an unnerving reality.

    The questions swirl: Do vaccines work against Omicron? How much protection does my child get from a cloth mask? What about an N95? What should I do if my kid tests positive?

    The risk calculus can quickly become overwhelming.

    Related

    Disease Expert Warns: Overwhelming Omicron Surge Could Make it Difficult to Keep Schools, ‘Everyday Life’ Operating in January

    Amid the widespread anxiety, and as pandemic fatigue continues to creep, The 74 spoke directly to health experts for clarity on how to understand the virus during this latest stage — with many of their takeaways offering reassurance.

    Experts also weighed in on hot topics like what masks to wear in school, how to handle positive cases and the recent, controversial move from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to cut its recommended quarantine time for infected individuals from 10 to five days.

    Here’s what they had to say:

    1 Are schools safe for children right now?

    Yes, under the right circumstances, doctors agreed.

    “I think for school districts that have a high vaccination rate, I think for school districts that have mandated indoor masking and I think for school districts that have appropriate ventilation and distancing … they’re going to be OK,” Philip Chan, medical director for the Rhode Island Department of Health, told The 74.

    Numerous academic studies underscore that when schools employ multiple mitigation strategies together — like masks, distancing and ventilation — transmission of the virus happens less frequently in classrooms than in the surrounding community.

    “Teachers and students are far more likely to be infected at social gatherings, restaurants, etc. than at school,” George Washington University Professor of Public Health Leana Wen wrote on Twitter.

    Related

    ‘Our Parents Have Done Enough’: Cardona Urges Schools to Stay Open, Biden Touts Safety Measures as Omicron Cases Spread

    Even as thousands of schools across the country announced closures in the early days of the new year, President Biden implored K-12 leaders to continue in-person learning.

    “The president couldn’t be clearer: Schools in this country should remain open,” said White House advisor Jeff Zients during a Jan. 5 press briefing.

    Health experts say classrooms are safe, even amid Omicron, as long as schools double down on mitigation measures like masking and ventilation. (Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

    But school leaders are running into a roadblock: not enough staff due to high shares of K-12 workers testing positive for the virus. Where COVID spread is especially rampant, it may be the right call to take a brief pause on in-person learning, said Kristina Deeter, a physician at Renown Children’s Hospital in Reno, Nevada. Teachers, she added, should not be coming into school if they’re sick.

    In Chan’s Rhode Island, the majority of schools are open, though a handful had to close due to positive cases. The father of a 10-year old and a 14-year old, Chan said he felt confident sending his children back to their public school classrooms after the winter break. Both are fully vaccinated and wear surgical masks inside the building.

    “I’m reassured that they’re protected, even against the Omicron variant,” he said.

    2 Do vaccines work against Omicron?

    The unanimous response from health professionals came in the form of a three-letter word: Y-E-S!

    (Doctors, often technical and somewhat restrained in their email responses, answered this question using more exclamation than any other.)

    Omicron has caused more breakthrough infections than other strains, they acknowledged, but emphasized that the immunizations have overwhelmingly succeeded at their key functions.

    “The vaccines are still doing what they are intended to do: preventing severe infection and death,” said Peyton Thompson, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. 

    “Deaths are declining despite the rapid rise in cases, thanks to vaccination,” she added.

    And while it remains possible to catch the virus if you have received two, or even three shots, each dose of the vaccine provides an added layer of protection. Such cases tend to be mild, explained Wurtz.

    “Breakthrough infections are almost always asymptomatic or trivial. Occasionally flu-like. So, yes, we can count on our vaccinations to keep us from getting really sick,” the Minnesota professor wrote in an email to The 74.

    Seven-year-old Milan Patel receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a school-based Chicago clinic in November. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

    Children under the age of 5 are not yet eligible for shots, and are not expected to gain access until this spring at the earliest, Pfizer announced on Wednesday.

    In the meantime, “the best way to protect kids under 5 is to vaccinate all of the people around them – their older siblings, other family members, day care providers [and] teachers,” said Wurtz.

    3 Boosters for kids — yay or nay?

    The Food and Drug Administration on Monday authorized third doses for 12- to 15-year olds and, on Tuesday, the CDC recommended an extra shot for immunocompromised children as young as 5, five months after the initial two-dose series.

    Deeter recommends that those who are now eligible receive their third doses.

    “Many of our vaccines are actually three-shot series,” she told The 74, citing the Hepatitis B immunizations, for example. 

    “My message to teenagers is this: you got your first shot, you got your second shot, you’ve got to finish the series.”

    4 Why are so many children being hospitalized with COVID?

    The answer, doctors say, boils down to two factors: vaccination rates and community spread.

    Nationwide, pediatric COVID cases and hospitalizations are at a pandemic high, the latter surging 66 percent in the last full week of December to an average of 378 daily admissions.

    But at the same time, vaccination rates among young people remain much lower than adults. Less than a quarter of children ages 5 to 11 have received a single dose of the COVID vaccine, and just over half of adolescents ages 12 to 17 have been fully immunized, according to data published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. By comparison, nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults have received both shots.

    The overwhelming majority of hospitalized pediatric COVID patients are unvaccinated, physicians report. “This is tragic, as the vaccine could have kept these children out of the hospital,” said UNC-Chapel Hill’s Thompson. 

    And regardless of vaccination status, the ballooning pediatric hospitalization levels do not mean that the Omicron strain is more severe to kids than previous variants.

    “​​In large part, this is a numbers game,” said Kanecia Zimmerman, a study lead on Duke University’s ABC Science Collaborative, which guides school leaders on how to navigate COVID policy. 

    Even though surging caseloads nationwide have meant that more children have tested positive for the virus in recent weeks, “the proportion of hospitalized children remains small among the number of infected children,” the pediatrician explained.

    5 What kind of masks are “good enough?”

    The extreme transmissibility of the Omicron variant has spurred numerous districts, some in red states, to reinstate mandatory masking rules — and has also reignited debates over which face coverings are most effective at protecting against infection.

    There’s no doubt that the N95 and KN95 models do a better job of filtering out viral particles from the air, doctors agreed. They have a layer of polypropylene, a type of plastic, that can trap the virus. Compared to a cloth mask, they can extend the time it takes to transmit an infectious dose of COVID by over seven times. If both the infected and exposed individuals are wearing N95s or KN95s, compared to both wearing cloth masks, transmission can take up to 50 times longer.

    That said, Chan admits that the N95 and KN95 masks can be uncomfortable, and some may find it harder to breathe while wearing them.

    “With my kids, I send them to school with surgical masks,” he said, noting that he himself will slip on an N95 before walking into crammed indoor spaces like the grocery store. 

    A cloth mask, a surgical mask and a KN95 mask

    But whether you opt for a simple surgical mask, or something beefier, here’s his bottom line: “The cloth masks just aren’t quite as good as other types of masks,” said the Rhode Island doctor.

    6 How should my child’s school be testing students and staff for the virus?

    In December, the CDC endorsed “test-to-stay” guidance that allows students and teachers who may have been exposed to the virus to take rapid tests and return to the classroom if their results are negative.

    It’s a helpful approach, Duke’s Zimmerman believes. Through the Delta variant wave, 98 percent of people who were exposed to the virus were never ultimately infected, she said — meaning that without test-to-stay, the vast majority of quarantines are forced to miss class without ever having gotten sick.

    Related

    As Schools Brace for Winter Omicron Wave, CDC Endorses Test-to-Stay to Keep Students in School

    But testing can be costly and a heavy logistical lift. Furthermore, COVID tests are in short supply nationwide. To cut down on the total number of noses to swab, schools in her state of North Carolina target resources to lunchtime exposures, where children drop their masks, she explained, eliminating the possibility of quarantine among less-likely cases where both students are masked.

    Also important, according to Zimmerman: testing location. If students need to travel to an off-site area to receive their tests, it can exclude youth without access to transportation from participating in the program, forcing them to miss class for quarantine and creating further setbacks for the students already most affected by the pandemic. 

    “Offering testing at individual schools (not centralized locations) is critical for [the] success of this program because it is more likely to provide equal opportunity to all eligible staff and students within the district,” said the Duke pediatrician.

    7 How should I navigate quarantine if my child or I test positive?

    In late December the CDC reduced its quarantine guidelines for those who test positive for the virus from 10 days to five, a move that divided many in the medical community.

    The takeaway, according to the doctors we spoke to? “Yes, returning to school or work five days after a known infection when someone is no longer symptomatic is fine,” said Wurtz.

    Emphasis, they noted, is on no longer being symptomatic. Many individuals will continue having symptoms well beyond the five-day quarantine recommendation. If that’s the case for you or your child, you should continue to isolate until symptoms subside, or test results come back negative, as you may continue to be infectious, doctors said.

    “Come back symptom-free,” said Deeter.

    8 How long will the Omicron surge last?

    A bit of good news here. 

    Though epidemiologists don’t know for sure how long the Omicron surge will last in the U.S., cases have begun to subside in South Africa, where the variant was first identified in late November. Some believe the peak in many American communities will arrive before the end of January.

    “In most countries that saw Omicron, it went up sharply, which is happening now in the U.S., and it came down sharply,” said Chan. “There should be a steep decrease in the near future for us.”

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  • T74 Parent Survey: Moms and Dads, We Want to Hear How Your School Is Faring During Omicron & Your Top Education Concerns Amid the Latest COVID Surge

    By The 74 | January 6, 2022

    As the infectious Omicron variant sweeps across the U.S., families and educators are facing a new wave of school delays, campus closures and classroom safety concerns. Here at The74Million.org, our education reporters want to know more about how this surge is affecting parents, students and school communities — and what you’re thinking and feeling about this latest learning disruption. 


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    Do you agree with how your school district is handling the Omicron surge? Do you want more options from your school districts? Are you worried about your child’s safety? What are your frustrations and triumphs? 

    See the full survey below; your responses will help our journalists better report on this surge and on how the pandemic is continuing to affect children and families. We’ll also be gathering and sharing out the most memorable responses from across the country. (Want to hear what others are saying? Sign up for our newsletter to see our survey results). 

    Fill out the answers below (If you can’t see the survey, please click here

    Some of our recent COVID coverage: 

    —School Staffing: Disease expert warns that overwhelming Omicron surge could make it difficult to keep schools, “everyday life” operating in January (Read more

    —Child Trauma: 1 in 450 youth have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID (Read more)

    —Students Thrown Off Track: Over 1 million high school grads skipped college in 2020. Only a tiny fraction re-enrolled in 2021 (Read more)  

    —Learning Recovery: Districts are receiving billions for academic recovery, but some parents struggle to find tutoring for their children (Read more

    —Parents Wary of Vaccinating: With nearly half of parents expected to forgo child COVID shots, schools brace for new wave of vaccine hesitancy (Read more

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  • Video Replay: Chicago Mayor Lightfoot, Schools Chief Martinez Implore Teachers Union to Keep Classrooms Open Ahead of Vote to Halt In-Person Learning

    By The 74 | January 5, 2022

    Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez and Mayor Lori Lightfoot addressed local media Tuesday evening, just ahead of a vote by the Chicago Teachers Union to return to remote learning for two weeks, unless the number of positive COVID-19 cases decline or an agreement is reached with the district over safety precautions.

    Watch a full replay from the hearing: 

    Lightfoot compared the situation to the movie “Groundhog Day,” insisting “there is no basis in the data, the science, or common sense for us to shut an entire system down when we can surgically do this at a school level.”

    Martinez emphasized the district’s empowerment of school principals: “There is no evidence [that schools aren’t safe]. Now, what is real is cases are rising and we have said, the best solution is to do it at the school level. Our principles are empowered, our teachers are empowered, they have safety committees, we have invested in the filtration systems…”

    Related

    Chicago Cancels School Wednesday, to Dock Teachers’ Pay as Union Votes Against In-Person Learning; CTU Accuses Mayor of Prioritizing ‘Free Child Care’ for Business Class

    CTU spokesman Chris Geovanis said that while some schools implement all COVID mitigation strategies, not all do.

    Geovanis said the union doesn’t hold Martinez responsible for the lack of agreement and instead faults Lightfoot, who has control over the school district. “It says nothing about Pedro. He’s not the boss,” ​​Geovanis said, accusing the mayor of wanting to appease parents in wealthier parts of the city, saying she’s siding with “the business class who relies on CPS for free child care.”

    Shortly after the press conference CTU voted to halt in-person instruction, and classes were immediately canceled on Wednesday as a result. Read Linda Jacobson’s full report on the reactions to the Tuesday evening vote.

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  • Oster Study Finds Learning Loss Far Greater in Districts that Went Fully Remote

    By Kevin Mahnken | January 4, 2022

    What are the consequences of closing virtually every American school and shifting to online education for months at a time?

    It’s a question that education experts have been asking since the emergence of COVID-19, and one whose answers are gradually becoming clearer. With federal sources reporting that 99 percent of students have now returned to classrooms, newly available data are showing how students were affected by spending long stretches of the last two school years at home. And the signs are not good.


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    Perhaps the most disturbing news yet was found in a working paper released last month by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which found that state test scores dropped significantly in both reading and math during the pandemic. In a discovery that will reopen questions about the wisdom of keeping schools closed, economist Emily Oster and her co-authors found that learning loss was far worse in districts that kept classes fully remote, and that declines in reading scores were greater in districts serving predominantly poor and non-white students.

    Oster, a Brown University professor and popular author, has won both adulation and criticism in the COVID era as an advocate for school reopenings. One study she co-authored, examining the spread of coronavirus in 250 Massachusetts districts last winter, helped persuade officials at the Centers for Disease Control to reduce the recommended social distancing requirement in schools from six feet to three.

    Related

    Inside the Massachusetts Study that Helped Change the CDC’s Stance on Social Distancing

    In an interview, Oster said that while the pandemic’s academic impact was “probably larger than [she] expected,” the differential effects related to closure policy were not unexpected.

    “Certainly I do not find the direction surprising, or the fact that there was a significant difference across these groups,” she noted.

    The study makes use of two huge sources of information. One, the COVID-19 School Data Hub, was launched in September by Oster and her colleagues to track the different learning models (virtual, in-person, or hybrid), enrollment trends, and public health outcomes that prevailed in schools during the 2020-21 school year. 

    The other was assembled from the 2021 math and English scores for students in 12 states between the third and eighth grades. The states studied (Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming) were chosen because their student participation rates in state tests remained above 50 percent this spring, and they offered at least two years’ worth of testing data from the period before the pandemic.

    The researchers found that overall student pass rates — the rate at which students score at or above “proficient,” however that is designated by the state administering the test — dropped in all 12 states, though with a wide variation in the size of the declines. In Wyoming, pass rates fell 2.3 points compared with prior years; in Virginia, they plummeted by 31.9 percent. 

    What’s more, the scale of learning loss was far more substantial in areas that kept schools closed longer. 

    The team specifically targeted the effects of school closures by dividing all school districts in their sample into three groups: those that offered in-person learning for at least two-thirds of the 2020-21 school year, those that went in-person for less than one-third of the year, and those that fell somewhere in-between. Then they compared changes in test performance among schools that fell into the different categories.

    The total effect of a district shifting from 0 percent in-person learning to 100 percent would be to reduce the drop in math pass rates by 10.1 percentage points (or more than two-thirds the average amount they declined during 2020-21, 14.1 points), Oster and her collaborators calculated; the same change would reduce the drop in English pass rates by 3.7 percentage points (more than half the average amount they declined over the same period, 6.3 points). 

    The downward movement on achievement was also somewhat linked to student background. By indexing the decline in scores to district demographic information, the authors found that in districts that enrolled over 50 percent African American or Hispanic students, the effect of switching from fully in-person classes to fully remote was associated with a drop in pass rates of 9 percentage points. Meanwhile, in a district enrolling no African American or Hispanic students, that switch only brought about a drop of 4.3 points.

    Those disparate trends find support in other research. Recent results from the online i-Ready assessment, administered to over 3 million elementary and middle schoolers across 50 students by Curriculum Associates, showed that students in majority-African American schools have fallen behind those in majority-white schools by a full 12 months of learning during the pandemic. Black students, on average, have enjoyed much less access to in-person classes during that time, studies have demonstrated.

    Related

    New Research: Students in Majority-Black Schools Had Been 9 Months Behind Their White Peers. Now, the Gap Is a Full 12 Months

    One lingering question is the extent to which the results were influenced by the cross-section of students who sat for tests this spring. With a sizable number of students either opting out of state-required testing or simply leaving public schools entirely, some have wondered whether the students who participated in the exams offer a representative sample from which to draw conclusions. 

    Oster said that the high participation rates in states that were selected for the study (all above 80 percent, and most above 90 percent) gave her “more confidence” in the effects she found. If anything, she said, the groups that were underrepresented in spring testing — disproportionately English learners and special education students — made it likely that the study was underestimating the damage wrought by the pandemic.

    “You see pretty consistently across states that there was less participation among English language learners or special ed students. That makes me think that…these numbers could be even larger if we sampled those groups at higher rates also.” 

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  • Disease Expert Warns: Overwhelming Omicron Surge Could Make it Difficult to Keep Schools, ‘Everyday Life’ Operating in January

    By The 74 | January 1, 2022

    Amid a record surge of COVID cases across the country and evolving CDC guidance surrounding both shortened isolation periods for Americans who test positive and eliminating the need to test negative before returning to work, Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, appeared on MSNBC Thursday with a dire prediction of how the latest variant could escalate so quickly in the coming weeks that it could disrupt daily life through January:

    “Right now we have a very imperfect situation that is going to require some very imperfect responses,” Osterholm said on Dec. 30, the day after America recorded more than 465,000 new COVID cases. “Over the next three to four weeks, we are going to see the number of cases in this country rise so dramatically that we are going to have a hard time keeping everyday life operating.” 

    Asked specifically if this unprecedented Omicron surge could threaten the reopening of schools during the first week of the new year, Osterholm said the situation may have less to do with student safety than a profound disruption to the available teacher workforce: “It’s not even a function of ‘Should they delay [reopening schools] because of kids getting sick?’ I worry very much that even with vaccinated teachers, we still could have breakthrough infections; we’re going to have a hard time staffing our schools in the next three to four weeks. 

    “All of society is going to be pressured by this – it’s health care, big box stores that are actually considering closing or have closed because they can’t find enough workers to actually be at work. From the school standpoint, we know schools are a place where this virus can spread, it will spread, kids will get it there, kids will bring it home, kids will take it to school, teachers will get sick …  I think the next month is unparalleled in the kinds of decisions we [will] have to make and schools will be one of them.” 

    Get our latest updates on COVID and education policy by signing up for our daily briefing. Some of our recent coverage about students and schools:

    — Child Trauma: 1 in 450 youth have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID (Read more)

    — Students Thrown Off Track: Over 1 million high school grads skipped college in 2020. Only a tiny fraction re-enrolled in 2021 (Read more)  

    — Learning Recovery: Districts are receiving billions for academic recovery, but some parents struggle to find tutoring for their children (Read more)

    — Parents Wary of Vaccinating: With nearly half of parents expected to forgo child COVID shots, schools brace for new wave of vaccine hesitancy (Read more)




  • ‘Our Parents Have Done Enough’: Cardona Urges Schools to Stay Open, Biden Touts Safety Measures as Omicron Cases Spread

    By Linda Jacobson | December 21, 2021

    With the Omicron variant now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the U.S. and cases spiking, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Tuesday urged school leaders not to retreat from in-person learning.

    ”I don’t think we should be considering remote options,” Cardona said Tuesday in an interview with The 74. “Our students deserve more, not less, and our parents have done enough to help balance school closures the first year of the pandemic.”


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    The secretary’s comments, however, come amid a sharp increase in schools already shifting to remote learning, either because of COVID-19 or staff shortages. According to Burbio, which tracks schools’ response to the pandemic, there are 646 school closures this week, up from 356 last week. Following the holiday break, 421 closures are expected, but that’s still less than a fifth of the number of closures in August, when the Delta variant postponed the return of many students to in-person learning. 

    Cardona’s comments amplified those made by the president in an afternoon news conference Tuesday.

    “Today, we don’t have to shut down schools because of a case of COVID-19,” Biden said. He urged parents to vaccinate their children and said the best way to protect those under 5, not yet eligible for vaccines, is to ensure their family members and caregivers are fully vaccinated and have had a booster. “The science is clear and overwhelming,” he said. “We know how to keep our kids safe.”

    The president announced several steps to increase COVID testing availability and expand capacity at hospitals. The administration will deliver 500,000 at-home tests to those who want them, starting in January, open more pop-up vaccination clinics, and make emergency response teams available to hospitals.

    On Friday — the last day before the holiday break for many schools — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released two studies showing that test-to-stay procedures can prevent lost instructional days due to quarantine. Cardona said he didn’t have a hand in pushing for the announcement before the break, but that, “our teams talk regularly.”

    Related

    As Schools Brace for Winter Omicron Wave, CDC Endorses Test-to-Stay to Keep Students in School

    “I was glad they were able to communicate it early enough,” he said. “As we’re thinking about 2022, we can use test-to-stay, as we’re thinking about how to utilize the [American Rescue Plan] funds, we can use test-to-stay to limit quarantine and keep our children in school.”

    The secretary added that there’s room for improvement in providing up-to-date numbers on school closures. The National Center for Education Statistics produces data on the percentages of students attending school in-person or remotely, but the results are released monthly, compared to Burbio’s weekly update, and in the past, have frequently been months behind. The latest data, released last week, reflects in-person and remote learning as of Dec. 3.

    “We’re going to continue to refine those systems, especially if there’s an increase in spread,” he said.

    According to the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which has tracked school closings and openings since the beginning of the pandemic, only eight states have provided schools with detailed guidance this school year on when they should consider closing. 

    Cardona said it’s important to not only know what percentage of students are in school, but “what’s causing potential, short-term remote learning options or what they need in order to keep their schools open.”

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  • Watch: Dr. Ashish Jha Says Cities That Close Their Schools Before Bars ‘Don’t Care About Kids and They Don’t Care About COVID”

    By The 74 | December 21, 2021

    Amid a tsunami of new COVID cases tied to the Omicron variant, and the first headlines pointing to K-12 schools extending winter breaks and pivoting to remote learning to cope with the surge, Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, appeared on MSNBC Monday and urged policymakers to treat school closures as only a last resort. 

    “What I’m hearing from school districts is already questions about going remote. I think it’s irresponsible at this point to do that,” he said. 


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    “We have all the tools to keep schools open and safe: Vaccinations, testing, improvements in ventilation, tens of billions of dollars have gone to schools … If I hear of a single school district that goes remote but keeps bars open what that says to me is: They don’t care about kids — and they don’t care about COVID. Because bars spread COVID. Schools generally don’t — not if you put in place mitigation efforts.”

    “I’m worried that city leaders are going to give up on kids and not do the right thing.” See Dr. Jha’s full comments:

    See some of our recent coverage about COVID, Omicron and schools (sign up here to receive our daily updates): 

    —Tracking School Closures: As Omicron threat looms, school closures continue ticking upward (Read more

    —Push to Vaccinate: A COVID vaccine advocacy group in Boston by youth of color, for youth of color (Read more

    —Mandatory Boosters: Some states start requiring school staff booster shots as Omicron fears fuel nationwide vaccination spike (Read more

    —Test-to-Stay: As schools brace for winter wave, CDC endorses test-to-stay to keep students in school (Read more

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  • As Schools Brace for Winter Omicron Wave, CDC Endorses Test-to-Stay to Keep Students in School

    By Linda Jacobson | December 17, 2021

    Test-to-stay is a “another valuable tool” that can keep students from missing school and learning due to quarantine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Friday

    Under the protocol — which many states and districts have had in place for months — unvaccinated students who are exposed to COVID-19 can remain in school if all students wear masks, don’t display any symptoms and test twice a week. 


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    Data suggests “that a school-based [test-to-stay] strategy in a large and diverse county did not increase school transmission risk and might greatly reduce loss of in-person school days,” according to an evaluation of a program in Los Angeles County, one of two studies released with the CDC’s statement. “Thus, schools might consider [test-to-stay] as an option for keeping quarantined students in school to continue in-person learning.”

    With schools breaking for the holidays and rising concerns about the spread of the Omicron variant, observers said the announcement — now part of the CDC’s COVID-19 guidance for schools — comes just in time. John Bailey, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who publishes a daily newsletter on COVID-related research, called it “welcomed news” that helps schools prepare for the potential Omicron wave in January. But the agency also urged all eligible students to be vaccinated and get a booster shot, and said schools shouldn’t abandon other safety procedures, including social distancing, improving ventilation and handwashing. 

    “It’s encouraging that test-to-stay strategies are proving effective both in limiting transmission of the virus and in ensuring that students can remain learning in school, so that entire classrooms or schools do not have to shut down when a case of COVID-19 is discovered in the school community,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

    It’s unclear, however, how many students those shutdowns have affected. Bailey faulted the Department of Education for not issuing weekly reports on how many students are in quarantine and whether they’re receiving instruction.

    “We should not be relying on third parties for that data,” he said. “An agency that is using civil rights authorities to enforce mask mandates should be curious about the civil rights of kids who are not being served in the midst of quarantines.”

    The CDC’s two studies show that test-to-stay is significantly minimizing disruptions in learning.

    Thirty-nine of Los Angeles County’s 78 school districts implemented test-to-stay. In those that didn’t follow the model, 4,322 students tested positive between Sept. 20 and the end of October, compared to 812 students in the districts that implemented the program.

    In Lake County, Illinois, 90 schools implemented test-to-stay between early August and Oct. 29. Just 16 students out of a total 65,384 tested positive. The authors wrote that assuming students would have missed eight school days during a 10-day quarantine, the program “preserved up to 8,152 in-person learning days” for students that were exposed.

    Leah Perkinson, a manager at the Rockefeller Foundation, which has worked with districts to implement testing, called this “one of the happiest days for me throughout this whole entire pandemic” and said the announcement will likely prompt more districts to adopt the strategy. “Some people are only willing to move forward when the CDC releases guidance.”

    The data, she added, could also inspire other settings, such as child care centers and camps, to see if they can implement test-to-stay.

    Related

    ‘Caught Flat-Footed’: As Biden, CDC Urge Widespread COVID Testing in Schools, Districts Around the Country Struggle to Make It Happen

    One challenge, however, is that some rapid COVID tests are not picking up Omicron, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Disease. 

    The two studies also noted complications that limit districts’ ability to implement the model, such as staffing shortages, the need for “robust contact identification and tracing” and a lack of support from parents. 

    “Some schools reported a shortage of testing supplies, requiring [test-to-stay] participants to access off-site testing, which might have presented a barrier in low-resource school settings,” according to the second evaluation on Lake County, Illinois. “State and local public health and education agencies should strive to ensure that schools in low-resource areas have equitable access to staffing and testing supplies to implement [test-to-stay].”

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  • AFT Launches Literacy Campaign, Pledging 1M Free Books for Families As Efforts Spread to Ban Titles from School Libraries

    By Asher Lehrer-Small | December 16, 2021

    At a moment when attempts to ban books from school libraries have reached unprecedented levels and educators are being threatened for their reading assignments, the American Federation of Teachers is launching a campaign to place 1 million diverse titles in students’ hands.

    AFT President Randi Weingarten said the union’s current effort — to bolster the science of reading, strengthen the school-family connection and give kids “free books to read, love and keep” — pre-dates the backlash, but stands in contrast to it.


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    “We have [long] been trying to increase the titles that are available for children,” Weingarten told The 74. Still, “this [campaign] does counter … all those who are trying to either burn books, or to censor books,” she added. 

    The nation’s second-largest teachers union has nurtured a years-long partnership, Weingarten said, with First Book, a marketplace that provides affordable children’s books to educators of high-needs students. The “Reading Opens the World” campaign’s 1 million books will be sourced from their site and distributed at events beginning this holiday season and running through 2022.

    “In the aftermath of this [pandemic,]” Weingarten said, “we thought we would step in and do something muscular and fun.”

    The $2 million, multi-year campaign kicked off Tuesday in the cafeteria of Malcolm X Elementary School in Washington, D.C., a majority-Black school where a hand-drawn banner reading “My Black is Beautiful” hung above the lectern. After the event, which concluded with read-aloud groups, students were sent home with books by Black authors or that featured Black main characters, including Ada Twist, Scientist and Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X


    Students and teachers at Malcolm X Elementary School. (AFT via Twitter)

    The AFT’s ambitious effort drops as controversies over what students learn — and read — roil to fever pitch. In late November, the American Library Association said that schools had seen more attempts to ban books from library shelves than at any previous point in recent decades.

    “What we’re observing, really in the last year, is a real effort to remove books dealing with the LGBTQ person’s experience, or the experiences of persons who are Black, Indigenous or persons of color,” ALA Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone told The 74. 

    Many of those challenges have come from parents and community members who have received materials from conservative groups such as Moms for Liberty, Parents Defending Education and No Left Turn in Education, Caldwell-Stone said. Social media frequently accelerates complaints, she added, noting that the ALA often sees parents from disparate locations object to the same titles in the days after a video or post goes viral online.

    In mid-November, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed education officials to look into “criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography” — as legislators also passed legislation tamping down how teachers can approach conversations related to race and gender in the classroom. Amid the fervor, state GOP Rep. Matt Krause reached out directly to superintendents asking whether books on an 850-title list could be found on their shelves.

    None of the works that the AFT specified it will give to students are on that list, but many do address race and racial identity.

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    “The titles that we’re distributing today are ensuring that kids have diversity in the books that they’re reading,” Weingarten said. 

    Rep. Krause did not respond to requests for comment on the union’s new initiative.

    Numerous studies document persistent racial and gender gaps in representation within the youth literature genre. In 2018, half of children’s books depicted white main characters, while Black, Asian, Hispanic and Indigenous people led 10 percent, 7 percent, 5 percent and 1 percent of titles, respectively, according to numbers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

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    Throughout the rest of December, 20 local AFT affiliates from Puerto Rico to Houston to Indiana will hold literacy events similar to Tuesday’s kick-off in the nation’s capital. In the new year, book-laden buses will distribute volumes to students in harder-to-reach areas.

    Books will be reflective of those students’ linguistic and racial background, AFT communications director Leslie Getzinger wrote in an email to The 74.

    In addition to distributing books, the 1.7 million-member union also intends to equip teachers and parents with tips for boosting literacy, including providing instructors with information on the science of reading. The approach, long backed by research, emphasizes phonics and decoding words over text recognition through exposure and context. While more and more teacher training programs have adopted the science of reading, there is still dissension at the district and classroom level over how best to teach reading and confront a national epidemic of illiteracy.

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    Collaboration between schools and families will also be a lynchpin of the new efforts, the AFT said in a press release.

    The union hopes that its campaign will help students catch up on learning they may have missed during the pandemic. The latest research on academic achievement finds that, overall, students are three months behind in reading, and that students at majority-Black schools may be as many as 12 months behind their peers at majority-white schools.


    Washington Teachers Union President Jacqueline Pogue-Lyons speaks during the “Reading Opens the World” kick-off event. (AFT via Twitter)

    But in addition to making up for academic losses, some officials involved in the literacy effort know that the possibilities extend far beyond the classroom. In the AFT’s release, Weingarten refers to reading as “key to life, to joy—to our very existence,”

    From the Malcolm X Elementary School cafeteria, D.C. union President Jacqueline Pogue-Lyons read the young students a quote from their building’s namesake:

    “People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”

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  • Watch: COVID, Student Enrollment and Charter Schools — How the Pandemic Has Changed What Parents Expect From Their Education System

    By The 74 | December 15, 2021

    Throughout the pandemic, thousands of parents have pulled their kids out of traditional schools and sought alternative ways of educating them. Many of them turned to public charter schools, which reported dramatic enrollment increases from the end of the 2020 school year to the end of the 2021 school year. So what’s next for charters — and the traditional public schools that have witnessed significant enrollment declines? 

    These are some of the questions that will kick off the Dec. 15 webinar “Voting With Their Feet: Responding to Increased Demand for Innovative Schools,” presented by The 74 and the Progressive Policy Institute and set to take place Wednesday at 2 p.m. ET. The event is free and open to the public; refresh this page at 2 p.m. to stream here or simply click here to register and watch.

    Panelists will include such leaders and experts as Dave Sokola, Delaware State Senator; Jessica Sutter, D.C. State Board of Education; A.J. Crabil, Director of Governance for the Council of the Great City Schools; and Debbie Veney, Senior VP, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The panel will also feature two parents: Matt Mohler of Tallahassee, Florida, and Katrina Merkerson of Birmingham, Alabama. 

    For more information on the event, and to sign up to receive a livestream link, please visit our RSVP page.

    Some recent school choice coverage from The 74:

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  • New Research: Students in Majority-Black Schools Had Been 9 Months Behind Their White Peers. Now, the Gap Is a Full 12 Months

    By Beth Hawkins | December 14, 2021

    Students in majority-Black schools are now a full 12 months behind those in mostly white schools, widening the achievement gap by a third, according to a new analysis by McKinsey & Co. Overall, students are four months behind in math and three in reading compared with years past, but those totals hide wide disparities.

    At the same time, the range of students’ academic needs teachers must address within a single classroom has widened, with the share of children at or above grade level in math falling by 6 percentage points and the number two or more grade levels behind increasing by 9 points. As a result, the number of students far below grade level in a hypothetical math class of 30 fourth graders has risen from eight to 11. 


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    The researchers based their conclusions on Curriculum Associates’s i-Ready assessments administered this fall in person to 3 million students in grades 1 to 6 in all 50 states. They compared the results with exam scores from a comparable set of schools in 2017, 2018 and 2019. In addition, they used data from Burbio and from McKinsey’s own parent surveys to show that while there is less disruption to learning than last spring, a variety of factors are limiting students’ time in class just when they need it the most. 

    Overall, students have made up about a month of unfinished learning compared with last spring, notes the report, “COVID-19 and Education: An Emerging K-Shaped Recovery.” But that rebound, too, is inequitable. 

    In schools where enrollment is 75 percent or more Black, students are 5.5 months behind in math and nearly as much in reading. In majority Latino schools, they are 4.5 months behind in math, and in white schools, 2.5 months. Low-income and urban schools are experiencing similar disparities.

    Parents’ perceptions of their children’s well-being have rebounded somewhat since a June 2021 spike, but concerns remain. Compared with pre-pandemic surveys, the number of families with fears about academic achievement and student attendance and engagement is up 5 percent, with an increase of 7 percent in those reporting mental health concerns.

    Parent reports of their own children’s absenteeism are up 2.7 times over pre-pandemic levels, which the researchers say is likely a dramatic underestimate. Up to one third of students may be chronically absent this year, defined as 15 or more days not in school.

    “Nearly half of Cleveland’s students are on track to be chronically absent this school year,” the report notes. “Low-income students, who often lack access to resources to make up for lost instruction in the classroom and who are more likely to experience ongoing attendance barriers, are 1.6 times more likely to be missing multiple days of school than their high-income peers.”

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    According to Burbio, 9 percent of public-school students have been affected by a school closure this academic year, with 54 percent of U.S. students receiving some form of virtual instruction during the disruption. In its canvass of parents, McKinsey found that of students who chose to attend fully in-person learning this fall, only 83 percent attended 10 full days during the two weeks the survey was in the field.

    Confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases account for just 12 percent of closure days, researchers found, with 50 percent of closures consisting primarily of single-day breaks school districts have taken to support student and staff mental health and another 13 percent caused by staff shortages. Parents of Black and Latino students were most likely to report that school closures were the cause of their children’s interrupted in-person learning.

    Finally, researchers found gaps by income level in the likelihood a student has received academic or social-emotional pandemic recovery support and a disconnect between the services parents say they want for their children and those included in school districts’ plans for spending federal stimulus funds. 

    Districts are budgeting about a fifth of their third-round funding for summer school, while only 17 percent of parents are interested in this option. By contrast, 29 percent of parents want tutoring, but just 7 percent of academic recovery funds are directed to this option. 

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  • WATCH — NYC’s New Schools Chancellor David Banks Talks Classroom Safety, Charter Schools and His Guiding ‘North Star’ of Career Success For Every Student

    By The 74 | December 10, 2021

    The morning after New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams named him the city’s next schools chancellor, David Banks made several media appearances Friday where he talked about his vision and priorities for America’s largest school district. 


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    Appearing on MSNBC, he spoke specifically about school safety during COVID and the need to keep remote learning options on the table, about his openness to scaling successful education strategies from non-traditional schools, and about the “north star” that will guide his efforts: Ensuring that every New York City student is set up for career success in the new economy. 

    Read more about his appointment from The 74’s Jo Napolitano, and watch his full MSNBC appearance: 

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  • 4 Things to Know About Alberto Carvalho, Los Angeles Unified’s New Superintendent

    By Marianna McMurdock | December 9, 2021

    Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade’s long-time, charismatic and controversial schools chief, was selected Thursday by the Los Angeles Unified school board as its next superintendent.

    An advocate of school choice, nontraditional schools and known champion of undocumented student rights, Carvalho, 57, has run Miami’s schools for more than a decade. 


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    Carvalho’s sometimes unusual reform tactics have been credited for Miami-Dade’s rising high school graduation rate, now about 89 percent — about 30 percent higher than rates the year prior to his tenure. 

    His aggressive approach to school reform may be welcome in Los Angeles, a system struggling with declining enrollments, student mental health and overall learning loss.  

    Here are four things to know about the man set to head up the nation’s second largest district: 

    1 Carvalho has spent his entire career in the Miami-Dade school system, starting as a high school science teacher in the 1980s.

    Originally on track to become a doctor, he accepted a teaching job in his early 20s and “the bug infected me,” he told the 74.

    In his 13 year tenure as superintendent, he’s pushed for the expansion of charter and magnet schools throughout Miami and encouraged families to use publicly funded vouchers to attend private schools. 

    The “privatization” of the district, and its hefty payouts to expand school security, have garnered national scrutiny for years over concerns that they’ve siphoned funds from existing, traditional schools.

    Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez (L) and Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho visit a K-8 school on August 24, 2018. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

    “We are now working in an educational environment that is driven by choice. I believe that is a good thing. We need to actually be engaged in that choice movement. So if you do not ride that wave, you will succumb to it. I choose not to,” he once said of his stance.

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    The academic success of his districts’ nontraditional schools is a reminder of how, as he summed up in a 2015 conversation with The 74, “one size fits none.”

    From 2017 to 2019, no schools in his district were marked as failing by Florida’s Department of Education. Carvalho called the rankings, a first for the district, “his proudest moment.” 

    2 He’s not a stranger to public confrontations, this year taking on Florida Gov. DeSantis over mask mandates.

    This summer, while Florida COVID-19 hospitalizations rose, Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to withhold school board members’ and administrators’ salaries who defied his executive order banning mask mandates. 

    Carvalho balked. “At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck, a small price to pay considering the gravity of this issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees,” he said in a statement to CBS Miami

    It wasn’t the first time he’d publicly challenged state or federal leaders in efforts to protect students in Miami-Dade. In 2012, he threatened to resign if Daniela Pelaez, a North Miami valedictorian, was deported per a judge’s order. 

    “I took a position then, I stood with the students,” he told The 74. 

    Pelaez was ultimately not deported, and President Obama’s executive order protecting undocumented DREAMers from deportation was enacted just a few months later.

    Alberto Carvalho, second from left, celebrates after Miami-Dade won the 2012 Broad Prize for Urban Education on October 23, 2012 in New York City. (John Moore / Getty Images)

    3 For Carvalho, student immigrant rights are personal. He grew up in Portugal and came to NYC as an undocumented immigrant in his teens.

    “I remember landing in New York City, JFK International Airport, and the rest is history,” Carvalho told The 74 in 2018. 

    Carvalho left his home in Portugal as a teen, just after becoming the first in his family to finish high school, in pursuit of higher education and financial freedom. 

    He arrived without knowing English as an undocumented immigrant, at times experiencing homelessness, working as a busboy and construction worker in NYC and South Florida. 

    In 2017, as President Trump’s administration firmly stood against undocumented immigration, Carvalho banned ICE from Miami-Dade’s “sanctuary schools” — a stark contrast to the county’s policy to detain undocumented immigrants. 

    Many of the district’s students emigrated as children from Haiti, Brazil, Guatemala, Cuba and Mexico. 

    Over my dead body will any federal entity enter our schools to take immigration actions against our kids,” he declared on television at the time. 

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    4 In 2018, he was slated to run NYC schools and turned the offer down — on live TV.

    After weeks of courtship by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who called him “a world-class educator with an unmatched track record of success,” Carvalho stunned the nation after he rejected the offer during a televised Miami school board meeting. 

    In a familiar flair for the dramatic, he took an extended pause from the live broadcast, returning to tearfully declare that he’d stay with Miami-Dade. 

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    The Carvalho Show Played Much Better in the Miami Superintendent’s Hometown Than in New York City, Where Residents Panned the Man Who Wouldn’t Be Chancellor

    I am breaking an agreement between adults to honor an agreement and a pact I have with the children of Miami,” he announced during the emergency board meeting, admitting he’d received a supportive wave of texts and voicemails from Florida families the night before the announcement

    Alberto Carvalho is hugged after publicly rejecting a job offer to become head of the New York City schools on March 1, 2018. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

    The decision came as a shock to NYC media and politicians, given the lengthy search process and previous indications he’d accept the coveted role to lead schools in the nation’s largest district. 

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