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Fairfax County Public Schools bus on the road (file photo)

The Fairfax County School Board is moving ahead with its plan to change middle school start times.

According to Fairfax County Public Schools, research has shown that later start times could positively influence student academic performance and mental and emotional well-being.

Last September, the school system awarded consulting firm Prismatic Services a contract to develop a plan for changing middle school start times to 8 a.m. or later. The goal is to make these changes without changing high school start times or impacting the FCPS budget.

Currently, all middle schools start at 7:30 a.m. FCPS moved high school start times to around 8 a.m. in fall 2015 through its Blueprint for Change adoption. At the time, the then-superintendent said revisions to middle school start times would be considered at a later date.

At a meeting last Thursday (Feb. 22), the school board received an update on the plan from Prismatic Services President Dr. Tatia Prieto, who said the goal is to recommend start times to the board in January 2025 with the intent to implement changes by 2026, if the board adopts them.

“To get there, we have a number of milestone activities,” Prieto said. “The background report, which we’re currently engaged in, [covers] the history of efforts in Fairfax around this issue. We’re also developing a number of case studies with a few large school districts to look at lessons learned from their implementation.”

The firm will also conduct on-site observations at selected middle schools.

“This is going to include observing bus observations at selected middle schools in order to get a good feel for things,” Prieto said.

The plan also includes a total of eight public information sessions for the community — four in the spring and four in the fall.

“The spring ones are going to be more informational in nature,” Prieto said. “We’ll communicate about sleep research, and let participants discuss how later school start times could be beneficial and could be implemented. And then the fall ones will present two to four alternatives for input.”

Additionally, the firm will conduct online surveys and forums. One major concern in changing school start times is transportation constraints, which Prieto said would be covered in the information sessions.

“Analyzing the potential impact of moving middle school start times on both the number of drivers needed, and on all the special programs will be part of our work on this project,” Prieto added.

Mount Vernon District School Board Representative Mateo Dunne questioned how a possible time change would affect extracurricular activities like sports, particularly in the fall and winter when the sun goes down earlier.

Prieto pointed to Anne Arundel County Public Schools, which also hired Prismatic Services to help change its school start times.

“All of their middle schools start at 9:15. They shifted their sports program — which is much more extensive than what you currently have — to the after hours, and are not experiencing any problems,” she said.

Dunne also asked how a change in the start time would affect staff and teachers working at middle schools. Prieto said they propose surveying teachers to find out if they foresee any potential issues.

“I will add that we did develop, as one of the initial documents for this, a list of the key stakeholders we need to talk to,” she said.

Springfield District Representative Sandy Anderson requested more information on how later start times has affected attendance at other schools.

“I have an eighth grader. I can’t imagine having him have to get to school on his own at 9:40, so that is terrifying to me,” Anderson said.

A future elementary school for Herndon is planned on a 5.55-acre as part of an overall development plan (courtesy Pomeroy Clark I)

Plans for a future elementary school in the Herndon area are materializing after the Fairfax County School Board approved a land transfer.

At a Feb. 22 meeting, the board unanimously approved the conveyance of a nearly 5.6-acre site from developer Pomeroy Clark I.

“FCPS legal counsel negotiated an agreement for the conveyance of the school site and other corresponding conveyance documents, including a special warranty deed,” staff said in meeting materials.

Pomeroy Clark I plans to build 519 townhomes and stacked flats on a 44-acre site called “One Sunrise Valley.” Once completed, the neighborhood will feature up to 1.5 million square feet of residential and retail development near the Dulles Airport.

The school site is located at the intersection of Frying Pan Road and Sunrise Valley Drive. According to drawings, it will include a building of roughly 135,000 square feet with up to five stories. Preliminary plans show that it would be located opposite a 296-unit multifamily unit building.

Greg Riegle, a partner for the law firm McGuireWoods representing the developer, emphasized how multiple stakeholders worked together to execute a plan.

“One Sunrise Valley joins a comprehensive list of approved land use applications that will transform western Fairfax County for the better,” Riegle wrote in a statement. “Frankly, the property owners stepped up to the plate to solve a critical school capacity issue while working in tandem with County officials and planning staff to maximize the development potential for the site.”

To the north, Coates Elementary School is operating at 131% capacity, according to Fairfax County Public Schools’ latest capital improvements plan. The school board voted earlier this month to prioritize the school at 2480 River Birch Road for a boundary adjustment.

The board approved the land transfer with no discussion.

FCPS Central Office in Merrifield (staff photo by James Jarvis)

Fairfax County Public Schools is seeking a solution to its ballooning student meal debt, which soared over the past year.

On Tuesday (Feb. 20), Fairfax County School Board members directed Superintendent Michelle Reid to get them more information on what options are available to prevent FCPS students from accumulating more debt due to their inability to pay for meals.

“So, in my view, we need to do some work to…put policies or procedures in place that, A) prevent the ballooning of this debt going forward, and B) expand access to lunches for kids, so we can feed more children and deter the potential practice — that may or may not be occurring — of holding children liable for the debt,” At-large member Kyle McDaniel said during the work session.

As of 2022, over one-third of FCPS students (34%) qualify for free and reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program, but FCPS Chief Financial Officer Leigh Burden said parents might not have realized that they needed to reapply after the end of a universal free school lunch program introduced during the pandemic.

The federal relief funds that paid for that program, which enabled all students to eat for free, ran out on July 1, 2022. FCPS reported an increase in students eating school food while the program was in effect.

Although schools are supposed to send out newsletters to parents with information about meal debt and free or reduced lunches, Burden recognized that families may be unaware of their accumulating balance.

She also emphasized that in some cases, families barely exceed the eligibility threshold for free lunches, making it difficult for them to clear their debt.

“So, we think those two things combined have contributed to the student debt rising so dramatically over the last two or three years,” she told the board during the work session.

About one-fourth of FCPS schools qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision program, which provides free lunch and breakfast to all students attending low-income area schools.

But elsewhere, students only qualify for free meals if their family earns less than 130% of the poverty level. Those with incomes between 130% and 185% of the poverty level qualify for reduced-price meals.

For grades K-12, breakfast costs $1.75. Lunch is $3.25 for elementary schools, and $3.50 for middle and high school students.

Burden notes that meal debt has been steadily rising since she was hired six years ago. However, in the last few years, the debt has “skyrocketed” across the entire school system, she said.

“During the years that all meals were free, we were serving 160,000 meals a day, whereas now, we’re back to about 110,000 [meals],” Burden said. “I mean, think about that: 50,000 students more were eating each day who now aren’t.” Read More

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology’s current admissions policy will remain in place after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider a lawsuit alleging that it discriminates against Asian students.

The Supreme Court denied a petition for a hearing today (Tuesday) by the Coalition for TJ, an advocacy group that sued the Fairfax County School Board in 2021 after the admissions process for the highly competitive magnet school was revised with the goal of diversifying the student body.

The Supreme Court’s decision not to take up the case ends a legal battle that lasted nearly three years and could’ve upended diversity initiatives in public education nationwide.

“We have long believed that the new admissions process is both constitutional and in the best interest of all of our students,” said School Board Chair Karl Frisch, who represents Providence District. “It guarantees that all qualified students from all neighborhoods in Fairfax County have a fair shot at attending this exceptional high school.”

The school board voted in December 2020 to eliminate a standardized test and application fee that were previously required for students seeking admittance into Thomas Jefferson High School (TJ). The board also raised the minimum grade point average for applicants, guaranteed eligibility to the top 1.5% of eighth graders at each middle school and added essay requirements and consideration of “experience factors” such as a student’s status as a recipient of free meals or involvement in special education.

Spurred by student activism after Fairfax County Public Schools reported that fewer than 10 Black students had been accepted in both 2019 and 2020, the policy overhaul has resulted in more diverse classes at TJ, particularly in terms of geography and income, since the changes took effect in 2021 for the Class of 2025.

Though Asian students got 61.6% of offers for the freshman class that entered last fall, compared to 19% for white students, 6.7% for Black students and 6% for Hispanic students, the Coalition for TJ has argued that the revised policy was designed to reduce the number of Asian students at the school, violating Constitutional protections against racial discrimination.

A district court judge agreed with the coalition in 2022 that Asian American students were “disproportionately harmed,” ordering FCPS to scrap the new admissions policy. However, that ruling was overturned last May by an appeals court panel that found the coalition had failed to prove that the school board “adopted its race-neutral policy with any discriminatory intent.”

The coalition petitioned the Supreme Court to pick up the case after the justices ruled in June 2023 that colleges can’t explicitly consider race as part of their admissions processes, ending decades of affirmative action programs intended to boost Black, Hispanic and other often underrepresented students.

Pacific Legal Foundation senior attorney Joshua Thompson, who represented the Coalition for TJ, says the Supreme Court “missed an important opportunity” to address admissions policies like the ones adopted for TJ that don’t explicitly consider race but still affect student demographics.

“Today, the American Dream was dealt a blow, but we remain committed to protecting the values of merit, equality, and justice,” Coalition for TJ co-founder Asra Nomani said in a statement. “…For the courageous families who have tirelessly fought for the principles that our nation holds dear, this decision is a setback but not a death blow to our commitment to the American Dream, which promises equal opportunity and justice for all.”

In a statement from FCPS, Frisch noted that TJ has accepted students from every Fairfax County middle school and maintained an average grade-point average for its incoming classes of 3.9 over the past three years.

Coates Elementary School in Herndon has been prioritized for a boundary adjustment (via Google Maps)

Fairfax County Public Schools is attempting to streamline its approach to managing capital projects to reduce costs and overcrowding in schools.

The school board approved a Capital Improvement Program (CIP) last Thursday, Feb. 8 for fiscal years 2025-2029 with multiple amendments intended to help lower costs, speed up select school renovations, meet green energy goals and enhance the process for tracking infrastructure projects.

The $1.3 billion, five-year plan allocates funding for the following projects:

  • Construction of the planned Dunn Loring Elementary School
  • A new wing to Justice High School
  • Relocation of modular buildings
  • Renovation of 18 elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools
  • Acquisition of land for one new high school

The revised CIP highlights a need to address overcrowding and capacity issues within the school system, with many schools nearing a critical tipping point.

Coates Elementary School in Herndon, for instance, is currently operating at 131% of its student capacity — a figure projected to rise to 172% by 2028. Crowding has been an issue for over 10 school years, according to the CIP.

At the moment, eight elementary schools, one middle school and eight high schools are operating beyond capacity, even though student enrollment has dipped from pre-pandemic levels and is expected to level out over the next five years.

Several other elementary schools, including Parklawn in Lincolnia, Mantua and Bailey’s, are expected to surpass student capacity in the coming years, per the capital plan. The same is true of Irving, Kilmer and Glasgow middle schools and Westfield, Centreville, McLean, Woodson, Robinson and Chantilly high schools.

The school board voted last week to add Coates and Parklawn as priorities for boundary adjustments, even as several members argued a more comprehensive approach to overcrowding issues is needed.

Parklawn is 96% capacity right now, but it’s projected to reach 112% by the 2028-2029 school year. It will still trail McLean’s Kent Gardens Elementary School, which will be at 113% capacity even after boundary adjustments were approved last year.

“The problem that I see, while we’re fixing these two tonight, if we don’t fix the process and fix other schools, we’re going to have Coates and Parklawns popping up like hotcakes across Fairfax County, and I don’t want to be in that position,” At-Large School Board Representative Kyle McDaniel said.

The board tasked Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid with formulating a “facility infrastructure policy” and establishing a system to track projects to be presented to the board later this year.

“I see an eagerness on this board, which I’m very excited about, to really look holistically and comprehensively at our infrastructure needs, our funding, and really get sort of our hands wrapped around the policies that relate to infrastructure, but also an overarching policy that guides our decisions regarding infrastructure,” Mason District School Board Representative Ricardy Anderson said.

Board members also asked Reid to propose options for funding capital projects.

Hunter Mill District Representative Melanie Meren expressed an interest in initiatives such as “swing spaces” — pre-existing facilities that students and staff can temporarily relocate to during construction.

“The benefit of that is that renovations could go quicker, which means they could also cost less money,” she said.

Over in neighboring Arlington County, a plan to turn an elementary school into a swing space got nixed last year after an outcry by current and future parents.

Reid is expected to present cost-saving options and the facility infrastructure policy to the school board on April 25. Additionally, she is scheduled to submit a plan for tracking infrastructure projects on May 7.

Image via Google Maps

The Fairfax County Public Schools administrative center in Merrifield (file photo)

Fairfax County Public Schools is stepping up its requests for funding this year from both local and state leaders.

The school system is seeking an additional $254 million from Fairfax County for fiscal year 2025 — about 10.5% more than last year — to help fund a projected $301.8 million, or 8.6%, budget increase, FCPS Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid reported in a presentation to the school board on Thursday (Feb. 8).

According to Reid, the increase is necessary for FCPS to meet the needs of all its students and adequately compensate its staff, even though student enrollment remains below pre-pandemic levels and no new initiatives are included in the proposed $3.8 billion budget.

With the county government bracing for a tight budget year itself, Reid stressed that the local request could be reduced if Virginia contributes more than the $42.2 million increase currently expected based on Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed funding plan for the state.

“What I’m presenting…is what I believe we need to resource and sustain the excellent work that our staff are doing today and compensate our staff into the future to keep us competitive, with the hope that as our General Assembly deliberates…they’ll see the necessity of actually allocating a greater amount of state funding, which will help us out in terms of our county transfer,” Reid told the school board.

The disparity between the local and state funding for public education has long frustrated both county and FCPS leaders, who argue that the formula used to calculate funding needs for each school division is outdated and shortchanges Fairfax County — one of the wealthiest counties in the Commonwealth, but also its biggest and most populous.

Those grievances got validated last year when the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission released an anticipated study that found Virginia spends about $1,900 less per student than the national average, falling below nearby states like Maryland, West Virginia and Kentucky.

If the Commonwealth matched the 50-state average, it would allocate $345 million to FCPS, according to Reid.

“So, just funding us at the average would be more than what we’re actually asking for in additional funds,” she said.

Multiple school board members acknowledged that the size of the funding request may give some community members pause, especially with only a modest growth in enrollment projected for FY 2025, which starts on July 1.

Fairfax County Public Schools student enrollment is rising but remains below fiscal year 2020 levels (via FCPS)

According to the proposed budget, FCPS expects to have 181,701 students next school year. Enrollment has ticked up over the past few years, reaching an estimated 180,398 students this year, but before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered classrooms in March 2020, the school system had over 188,000 students. Read More

A Fairfax County Public Schools bus parked at Vienna Elementary School (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

Teacher recruitment, school safety and controlling class sizes have been designated as top priorities for funding by the newly sworn-in Fairfax County School Board.

However, the county’s expected financial constraints may make it challenging for the board’s entire wish list to get funded in the upcoming budget cycle, which will start July 1.

Last week, the school board approved a resolution to serve as a guide for Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Michelle Reid as she crafts the school system’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget.

The resolution highlights improving teacher compensation, particularly for special education and Title 1 schools, as a key priority. Board members also stressed the importance of increasing access to universal breakfast and lunch programs, reducing school meal debt, expanding preschool options, lowering class sizes, and providing additional funding for mental health and academic support.

While some of those priorities are broad in scope, Mason District School Board Representative Ricardy Anderson noted the board has been discussing these issues with the superintendent and her staff in both public and private meetings for months.

“This is not a surprise,” she said. “They have been part of these conversations, and they understand what the board finds important.”

Aside from Anderson, Braddock District Representative Rachna Sizemore Heizer, and Hunter Mill District Representative Melanie Meren, who supported the resolution, most school board members are newcomers who were not part of the initial discussions on the board’s budget priorities last year.

Despite that, Anderson noted that the new members — all elected in November with Democratic endorsements — have shown strong support for many of the same issues as the previous board, which was similarly all Democratic.

“There was a lot of overlap with what the former board found important and with what the new board finds important,” she said.

Still, there is the hurdle of getting the county on board.

Fairfax County staff told the school board and the Board of Supervisors at a joint meeting last November to prepare for a tough budget year, forecasting a $284.5 million shortfall mainly due to a “flat real estate market,” according to the county website.

At a Nov. 14 school board work session, FCPS Chief Financial Officer Leigh Burden predicted a $202.6 million gap in the revenue needed to fund a 6% salary increase for all FCPS employees, address rising student service demands, and cover inflationary costs.

FCPS has a total operating budget for the current fiscal year of $3.5 billion — a $221.7 million increase from the previous cycle.

The superintendent is set to present her budget proposal to the school board next Tuesday, Feb. 6. How her office will address the revenue gap and incorporate the school board’s priorities into the proposal remains unclear.

However, Anderson said she doesn’t anticipate the school board’s entire wish list will be fulfilled.

“They’re big ticket items, and there’s only so much you can do in any given year,” she said.

Fairfax County Public Schools (file photo)

The upcoming capital projects plan for Fairfax County Public Schools comes with questions and uncertainties about future planning to address overcrowding and school capacity issues throughout the school system earlier this month.

Unveiled earlier this month, the new Capital Improvements Program (CIP) covers fiscal years 2025 through 2029. It sets the location, timing and funding of new schools, renovations and other capital projects over a five-year period.

At a Fairfax County School Board work session on Jan. 9, staff shared that the CIP accounts for cost increasesassociated with inflation, labor and materials increases, and prevailing wage.

Mason District Representative Ricardy Anderson pressed staff for answers how when schools in her district — namely Weyanoke Elementary School, Belvedere Elementary School and Luther Jackson Middle School — will be slated for renovation.

“Their buildings are highly problematic,” Anderson said.

Janice Szymanski, the school system’s chief of facility services and capital programs, a newly created position, said staff are working on building consensus on the renovation queue, which was last updated in 2009. The new line-up that’s currently under development isn’t reflected in the CIP at the moment.

FCPS Superintendent Michelle Reid also acknowledged that the renovation process has become “a bit muddled over time,” raising the need for the new queue.

“We don’t intend to be weasely as staff, but I do think we’re building the process while we take the input, so I want to manage expectations,” Reid said.

Major projects within the next five years include construction of Dunn Loring Elementary School, capacity improvements at Justice High School and the renovation of 22 schools.

The 10-year plan projects new construction of a Silver Line elementary school and a western high school, Pinewood Lakes Early Childhood Center, Tysons Elementary School, Pimmit Hills, and Virginia Hills.

Seema Dixit, the board’s new Sully District member, said she was especially concerned about overcrowding issues on the western side of the county.

“That’s where we have to put our brains together and find some creative ways,” Dixit said, noting that land acquisition for some schools is coming far too late.

Staff hope to lay out a new renovation queue that will establish how renovations — major and minor — are planned. The current renovation line-up has funding for planning, design or construction projects through 2031.

So far, a consultant worked with stakeholders in early 2023 to create possible criteria for new facilities. Phase two of the update includes compiling data and reviewing a new queue. The final phase of the project would incorporate the new system into the annual CIP and future bond referenda.

School board members also lamented a lack of sufficient progress on pursuing net-zero energy goals. Solar power purchase agreements are in place for Annandale High School and Mason Crest Elementary School.

At-large board member Ryan McElveen said he was particularly dismayed about limited progress on ensuring schools are ready for solar power, adding that he and fellow returning at-large member Ilryong Moon developed a list of 90 schools that were on track for being solar ready when they left the board in 2019.

“That is a major blow. Obviously there are reasons for all of this and this is not just an FCPS problem. This is a county problem as well,” McElveen said, referencing the challenges that the county government has faced in implementing solar projects.

Overall, total student membership is expected to remain flat over the next five years. The county’s demographic report also projects a decline in the school-aged population through next year.

School board action on the budget is expected on Feb. 8, followed by official release of the final CIP in mid-February. A public hearing was held on Jan. 18.

OpenAI’s ChatGPT on a laptop screen (via Rolf van Root on Unsplash)

With ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence-based tools becoming increasingly mainstream, Fairfax County Public Schools officials have started discussing potential guidelines to govern how the technology is used in the classroom.

The Fairfax County School Board broached the topic at work session forum on Nov. 28, led by outgoing board chair and Dranesville District representative Elaine Tholen and Sully District representative Stella Pekarsky.

While the discussion wasn’t recorded, Tholen says the school board felt it was a way to make the public aware that FCPS is developing a strategy for how it will handle AI, which is getting integrated into industries from public safety and health care to filmmaking.

“The School Board and FCPS recognizes that a comprehensive AI strategy is crucial for preparing students and educators for the future, enhancing the learning experience, and ensuring the school division remains competitive and adaptive in the rapidly evolving educational landscape,” Tholen said.

AI has been utilized for educational purposes for years, as apps like Duolingo and iNaturalist rely on algorithms that allow them to process data, identify patterns and adapt. But the recent advent of generative AI — which can create text, images and sound based on that data, with OpenAI’s ChatGPT and DALL-E as two high-profile examples — has raised new practical, legal and ethical questions.

In response to fears that students will use AI to cheat or do their homework, New York City Public Schools, Los Angeles Unified and other school districts have banned ChatGPT from their networks, while elsewhere, teachers suggest it could be a useful tool if handled responsibly.

The Highlander, McLean High School’s student newspaper, found that many students have at least experimented with AI, with 40% of 223 surveyed students admitting to utilizing it for at least one school assignment.

Fairfax County Federation of Teachers President David Walrod says the union’s members haven’t raised a lot of concerns about students using ChatGPT, but he’s aware that there are concerns “from teachers more generally across the country.”

“I do think it will require a change to some teaching practices, but I also see potential for positive change,” he told FFXnow.

In addition to using tools that can identify AI, similar to ones used to detect plagiarism, teachers may have to adjust what kinds of assignments they ask students to do at home versus in school, Walrod says. They could also put more emphasis on tasks that require students to show their work, such as an outline, graphic organizer or even a handwritten first draft for an essay.

While the technology presents challenges, it could help teachers by reducing or streamlining their workload. As examples, Walrod shared a hypothetical math lesson plan and discussion questions on the children’s novel “Bud, Not Buddy” generated by ChatGPT, noting that they could serve as “an effective starting point.”

“This doesn’t do all the work for me; I still need to generate examples, I need to find the materials to distribute, etc,” Walrod said by email regarding the math lesson plan. “But it does give me a general outline to follow and allows me to focus on preparing and creating the materials.” Read More

New boundaries have been approved for McLean elementary schools to relieve crowding at Kent Gardens (via FCPS)

Kent Gardens Elementary School should finally get some substantial capacity relief, starting next school year.

The Fairfax County School Board approved tweaks to the boundaries of five elementary schools in McLean on Monday (Dec. 4) with the goal of alleviating crowded conditions at Kent Gardens (1717 Melbourne Drive), which was at 121% of its programming capacity, as of the 2022-2023 school year.

When it takes effect with the 2024-2025 school year, the approved plan will shift 190 students to Franklin Sherman Elementary School and 38 students to Haycock Elementary School, according to Fairfax County Public Schools. To avoid creating capacity issues at Franklin Sherman, 112 of its students have been reassigned to Chesterbrook Elementary School and another 40 to Churchill Road Elementary.

One of six scenarios suggested by FCPS staff, the adopted proposal also adjusted the boundaries for Advanced Academic Placement (AAP) centers at Churchill Road and Haycock.

In total, an estimated 380 elementary school students will be affected, but no impact is expected at the middle or high school levels.

“When boundary adjustments are necessary, it is vital that our school communities join us in the process,” School Board Chair and Dranesville representative Elaine Tholen said in a statement that thanked families, students and other community members who participated in the boundary study, which has been in the works since fall 2022.

“It is through a combination of your input and staff expertise that we are able to provide a solution that best meets the needs of our students,” she added.

Before the school board’s vote, Tholen acknowledged that the changes will have a “significant” impact on Franklin Sherman, but the “realities of the geography” made the chosen scenario the best option.

“It was hard to move students from the eastern side of the attendance area to Chesterbrook, since most of those students are walkers,” she explained. “Transportation [staff] specifically requested we not move any walkers due to the shortage of bus drivers.”

While community members generally recognized the boundary adjustment as necessary at a Nov. 30 public hearing, some raised concerns about moving students out of a familiar environment where they’ve established friends and separating siblings.

One speaker observed that Stoneleigh and Hallcrest Heights, the biggest multi-family and townhouse communities currently served by Kent Gardens, are being reassigned to Franklin Sherman. Read More


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