Tents fit for a wedding reception and artfully constructed wooden bandstands: Welcome to outdoor classrooms during a pandemic — and now for the bad news


It didn’t take a pandemic for Sharon Danks to recognize the benefits of outdoor learning.

In fact, she started researching the environmental, physical and mental-health benefits of outdoor learning more than two decades before founding the nonprofit Green Schoolyards America seven years ago.

Before the pandemic, Danks partnered primarily with individual schools in districts near Berkeley, Calif., where the organization is based.

The pandemic, she said, has only strengthened the case for outdoor learning nationwide, especially given the amount of scientific research suggesting that the outdoors is less hospitable to the coronavirus than indoors where air circulation is significantly more limited.

See:Two teachers face a difficult choice: One welcomes ‘normalcy,’ while another feels ‘rage,’ and COVID-19 has radically altered feelings about school for both

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that schools “consider using outdoor space, weather-permitting, to enable social distancing.” The agency specifically recommends having lunch outside in place of in a communal cafeteria or otherwise eating within classrooms.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has also urged schools to find ways to offer as many outdoor activities as possible. “Get as much outdoors as you can,” he said in a Facebook
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live event in August. “If you look at the superspreader events that have occurred, they’re almost always inside.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics echoes Fauci’s views also urging schools to “utilize outdoor spaces when possible.”

Some schools have even built wood bandstand-like structures in the grounds to provide children with outdoor spaces.

Weather permitting, others have opted for tents that look more like they’re going to welcome wedding guests instead of children and teachers. Another school simply uses a circle of tree stumps.

“Nature is something that has been proven to decrease stress levels, and, during this pandemic, there has so much stress and trauma,” Danks said. What’s more, not all school buildings have enough space for children to maintain the recommended six feet of social distance.

“Outside not only do you have air that isn’t recirculating, but kids don’t have to stay in assigned seats all day and can actually move around,” she said.

Many schools recognized that back in March when they shifted to virtual instruction and reached out to Danks inquiring about how they, too, could create outdoor learning environments in preparation for the fall.

The overwhelming amount of inquiries she received led her to partner with three other nonprofits to form a National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative that provides schools with templates for how to construct an outdoor classroom, lesson plans and other tools with the support of more than 400 landscaping, design and educational volunteers.

One problem she noticed: “The bigger the institution, the longer it takes to change direction. Smaller schools such as single-district public schools and independent nonprofit private schools are doing this much more quickly because they don’t need to ask for permission.”

Not all schools have parent-teacher associations

But school size isn’t the only thing holding back schools from building outdoor classrooms in parts of the country where in-person learning is allowed to take place.

For children with special needs, for example, an outdoor learning environment poses a slew of problems, said Mindy Rosier-Rayburn, an elementary special-education science teacher at the Mickey Mantle School in New York City.

As of Friday nearly 800 schools in the city were approved to offer outdoor learning.

The New York City Department of Education did not respond to MarketWatch’s request for comment regarding efforts to level the playing field for lower-income schools that would like to offer outdoor learning, but can’t because they lack the funds to do so.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio gave city public schools the go-ahead in late August to offer outdoor learning in streets and parks near schools, Rosier-Rayburn recognized that there would be a “glaring equity issue” for schools in higher-income neighborhoods versus lower-income ones like the school district she teaches at, in Harlem.

“The comments I heard early on were that PTAs can help pay for these things,” she said, “but my school doesn’t even have a PTA, and there are so many others that don’t.”

“We are a Title 1 school,” she said. This type of school typically has a high concentration of children from low-income families and receives federal grants. All students attending Mickey Mantle School qualify for free lunch, she said.

When Rosier-Rayburn started teaching science remotely in the spring, she said, “I didn’t even feel comfortable asking parents to get supplies to do science experiments. If the experiment involves something I think they had at home, I tried to do that.”

Even if Rosier-Rayburn’s school had access to funds to purchase tents and other outdoor items, it would be a nightmare for her and her fellow teachers.

“We have several children who are runners, and that terrifies us. In a building you can control the situation, but outside you can’t,” Rosier-Rayburn, who has been a special-education teacher for nearly 24 years, told MarketWatch.

“We’re always on guard — just like when people enter a room they look for the exit and nearest bathroom, we constantly have to think: What could a student possibly hurt themselves with? That’s why outside learning is the worst idea.”

Additionally, she said several autistic students “could have sensitivity to sounds like honking horns.” Another concern: Some children “tend to put everything in their mouths.”

Plans are still up in the air for the upcoming school year, which in New York City is slated to begin on Sept. 21 after the school date was pushed back when the United Federation Teachers, a labor union composed primarily of public school teachers, threatened to strike over safety concerns relating to in-person learning.

For all of the above reasons, Rosier-Rayburn said she’ll continue teaching remotely, since she has received a medical accommodation to do so.

(The UFT did not respond to MarketWatch’s request for a comment.)


Cara Sclafani, a parent of two children who attend P.S. 185, a New York City Title 1 public elementary school, also located in Harlem, has health-related reservations about even sending them back for partial in-person learning certain days each week during an ongoing public health crisis.

As co-chair of the District 3 Green Schools Group, a coalition of parent volunteers who represent Manhattan’s Upper West Side and parts of central Harlem, advocating for outdoor education, Sclafani has advocated outdoor learning as much as possible.

Over a year ago, she successfully received two grants from New York City nonprofits to transform a deserted lot on school grounds that was “pretty much overrun with weeds,” she said, into a school garden and outdoor learning area.

Pictured is one of the outdoor learning areas at P.S. 185 which was previously a vacant and overgrown lot.


Cara Sclafani

Last year, she said, it was always a challenge to get teachers to wander outside of the classroom, “even though we set up this nice area for them with a tree canopy, benches and a reading library.”


And now? “The teachers are going to bring their students outside at least once a day,” Sclafani told MarketWatch. “Whether it’s just to read a book, paint or have physical education outside.”

She considers these types of activities “easy wins” to accomplish. Ultimately, however, she and other members of D3GSG are working on a “long-term vision” of having a “full-blown outdoor learning program” by the spring of 2021.

Sclafani said she was directly inspired by a Green Schoolyards America workshop she attended in June about constructing an outdoor learning environment. The organization, she said, has helped redesign P.S. 185’s outdoor learning space. She is on the infrastructure team at Green Schoolyards and is helping advise other schools across the county.

”Having outdoor learning at P.S.185 is a key factor for my family in determining whether or not my kids will attend in-person learning. We don’t have the school schedule yet, but I am hopeful my kids will be getting outside for at least a couple hours every day.”




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Thinking of moving from the city to the suburbs amid the pandemic? 5 financial factors you should consider first


Sick of being cramped inside a small apartment where you now not only live, but work and teach your kids, too? You’re far from alone these days.

But buying a home and moving to the suburbs is far from a fool-proof decision from a financial perspective, even in an era of rock-bottom mortgage rates.

Many city dwellers have taken a newfound interest in suburban and rural living as the coronavirus pandemic has transformed our daily lives and living spaces. Sales of new and existing homes have skyrocketed in recent months thanks to a combination of pent-up demand from the spring and city residents entering the market in search of more space.

“We’ve been speculating about increasing interest in the suburbs and rural areas since the start of the pandemic,” Redfin economist Taylor Marr said in a recent report from the real-estate brokerage firm. “Now we’re seeing concrete evidence that rural and suburban neighborhoods are more attractive to homebuyers than the city, partly because working from home means commute times are no longer a major factor for some people.”

Redfin
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found that home prices are up 11.3% year-over-year in rural areas and 9.2% in the suburbs. In urban areas, meanwhile, prices are up just 6.7%.

But the price of the home and the interest rate you can get on a mortgage are just two of the financial factors that buyers need to consider before renting a U-Haul to live the suburban life. Here are five other factors to consider when calculating the cost of such a move:

Buying a home may be cheaper, but property taxes can be higher

Property taxes accounted for more than 30% of all the tax revenue that state and local governments collected from Americans in fiscal year 2017, according to the right-leaning Tax Foundation. Property taxes are the single largest form of state and local tax revenue, the think tank said.

Though property taxes can go as low as a median of $200 in some places, the five counties with the highest median property tax bills are in suburbs surrounding New York City, according to Tax Foundation data. The 2018 median bill in these counties — Bergen and Essex in New Jersey and Nassau, Rockland and Westchester in New York — exceeded $10,000.

It’s important to keep the tax burden in context, said Jared Walczak, the Tax Foundation’s vice president of state projects. “All-in suburban property costs tend to be lower than those in prosperous downtowns, but the property tax itself may be higher. This is certainly true for some of the wealthiest suburbs of cities like New York and Philadelphia, but isn’t necessarily true across the country.”

Still, he added, “even if property taxes are higher, overall taxes are lower in the suburbs. For instance, both New York and Philadelphia impose high municipal income taxes that neighboring jurisdictions lack.”

Median property tax bills in some Illinois counties and Bay Area counties of California can range between $6,000 and $7,000, according to Tax Foundation data.

A bigger living space can mean higher utilities, water and garbage bills

Be ready to potentially pay more in utilities if you are living in the suburbs with more space to heat or cool — especially if you are working from home and running fans, computers, appliances and other electronics during the work day.

Here’s an object lesson from ConEd,
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+3.70%

a utility provider for New York City and the suburban Westchester County to the north of the city.

A typical New York City customer paid a $94.25 electric bill in July, according to spokesman Allan Drury. Meanwhile, a Westchester customer paid $112.99. That’s not even a $20 difference, but the costs add up. From January to July, the typical Westchester customer paid almost $135 more for electricity alone, the ConEd data show.

It’s not a hard and fast rule that suburbanites will pay more, Drury noted. It comes down to energy usage, and someone in the city could use more power than someone in the suburbs.

There’s also the water bill and other possible expenses like fees for garbage removal. Those may or may not be included in town services. The average monthly water bill in the U.S. is around $70, according to Move.org, a website with tips on moving and listings for moving companies. Trash removal can range from $30 to $50, according to Homeadvisor.com.

City-dwellers need to remember they already pay for these services in a certain way, said Alison Bernstein, president and founder of The Suburban Jungle, a real estate firm that focuses on moves out of cities into suburbs. Client demand is up 500% year-over-year from the second and third quarter of last year compared to this one, she noted.

Water bills and garbage fees might just be wrapped up into the rent and common charges people pay in the city. Prospective buyers eyeing a particular house should ask about monthly utility costs to get a better sense of the incidental costs, Bernstein said.

Owning a home means your responsible for its maintenance and upkeep

The downside of owning your home is you will no longer have a building super or landlord to handle fixing the leaking pipes and chipped paint — or pay for it.

“The amount of money that any homeowner should budget for annual upkeep and maintenance is anywhere between 1% and 4% of the value of the home,” said Dana Menard, founder and CEO of Twin Cities Wealth Strategies, a financial advisory firm based in Maple Grove, Minn.

In other words, for a home worth $320,000, you can expect to pay between $3,200 and $12,800 a year on maintenance, Menard said.

But that can easily go much higher depending on where you live. In more expensive parts of the country, the cost of hiring people to fix your home will naturally be higher. For instance, a 2018 report from real-estate website Zillow
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and services marketplace Thumbtack found that homeowners in Portland, Ore., paid $3,800 annually on average for services like house cleaning and appliance repairs. Comparatively, folks in Miami only pay $2,570 on average.

And if you choose to buy a home in a neighborhood with a homeowners’ association, you may face added costs for maintenance services such as lawn care as part of your HOA fees.

Leaving the city can mean relying more on cars and commuting

Between public transit and tightly clustered neighborhoods, you don’t need a car in many major cities. (That’s part of the allure for some who don’t want to deal with parking rules.) But in the more spread-out suburbs, life without a car could be trickier — especially if you’ve got kids in tow.

A move to the suburbs might also mean getting a second vehicle, depending on a particular family’s work schedule and lifestyle needs. People need to figure out what’s best for them, said Bernstein. “Anything can work, you just have to plan ahead and factor that into your life.”

If it means buying a car, people should realize the new and used market isn’t what it was a couple months ago, said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Cox Automotive, the parent company of brands including Kelley Blue Book.

Around March and April, many car makers trying to move new vehicles off the lot were offering 0% financing for the life of the loan to buyers with excellent credit.

“People grabbed those. As inventory has dwindled down, those deals have started to dry up,” Krebs said. In July, a new vehicle cost $38,378, which is up from $37,629 at the same point last year. Between supply chain woes and new social distancing protocols at automotive plants, Krebs thinks inventory will stay low for the rest of the year — and that won’t give dealers a lot of leeway to haggle.

“The normal channel for used cars has also been disrupted,” Krebs said. For example, drivers are not trading in their vehicles and lenders are giving cash-strapped drivers forbearance on loans, which means cars are not being re-possessed.

Earlier in August , the average price of a used car was $20,212, the second consecutive week where the price exceeded $20,000. The average used car price hasn’t broken the $20,000 mark in the years Krebs has been tracking the number.

More space can mean buying more furniture and décor

Owning a bigger house will eventually mean needing furniture to fill the additional rooms. And many first-time homeowners find themselves in a trap where they can’t resist buying that furniture right away.

Doing so could be a huge mistake though, Menard said. “Many people make the mistake of pulling out the credit card to take care of it quickly,” he said. Because many homeowners don’t think to budget for those impulsive purchases, they often don’t have the funds to cover the credit card balance.

Therefore, buying the fixings to spruce up your new abode with credit cards can “ultimately add an additional 25% to 50% of costs,” Menard said, once the interest rate on the credit card is factored in. Currently, the average annual percentage rate for credit cards is 16%, according to CreditCards.com.



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My sons want to skip college because of the pandemic — do I force them to go, and if they don’t, do I still have to support them financially?


Dear Ms. MoneyPeace,

My two boys graduated from high school this year. Though they are twins, they are as different as can be. One, I’ll call Tommy, was planning to go to college several states away until the school went online. The other, Timmy, was planning a gap year of traveling and working abroad.

The coronavirus upended a lot of people’s plans, including theirs. Timmy decided to go to a trade school for plumbing. Tommy is going to stay home and work odd jobs and may even “take a class or two” (his words). They want to know what their allowance will be! The economy isn’t great, though for now we are holding our own and have college savings in a 529 plan.

My wife and I went to college. She says, “Whatever they want, I’m OK.” They are only 18 — so young to make a life decision. I was the first generation of my family to attend college and want my boys to go. But how do I make them? Or what do I do to support them? What are other families doing at this time? Is giving an allowance reasonable?

Dear Double Trouble Parent:

We all have been adapting to this new world of living in a pandemic. The goal: Being alive and healthy.

People are changing careers, moving house and spending more time with elders. Other young adults have decided to skip college or attend a school closer to home because of what they have lived through the past few months.

Your sons sound like reasonable young men. Now take this opportunity to teach them about money.

First, sit with your wife. The two of you must have had a plan for their college education. Were you going to pay tuition? Living expenses? Personal expenses? Have them contribute by working and taking on loans?

Readjust your plan, given the changes in your financial life. Then discuss what makes sense for each twin. Standing together and setting up expectations are what’s important at this point.

Second, talk to your sons with your wife so everyone is on the same page. Explain how you are going to help them as they transition to financial independence. Each child is different, but you can set up ground rules. Discuss everything from health insurance, to cell phones, to gas for the cars. Include living-at-home parameters: Do they pay rent? Do chores? Help with groceries?

Then, the issue of the allowance can be brought up. Every family handles it differently: From nothing to carte blanche with a credit card. Do not overpromise what you can afford, especially if your job is at risk or your income dwindling.

Treat them as the young adults they are, allowing them to contribute to the conversation and their future. You may even share the amount in their 529 plans and say it’s for education, not an allowance. They will have a finite amount of money for education. Whether you contribute to their living expenses beyond keeping a roof over their head may depend on a number of things — if they are in school or until they are a certain age, for example.

Be sure to explain that the situation is fluid. When they understand that a handout isn’t assured, you help them become better financial decision makers.

I hear some stress about your children not heading off to college. As one parent acknowledged to me last year: “My ego is involved in where my child goes to college.”

Let go of this issue being about you. College served you and your wife well. That’s great. That was a different time, and your twins are different people. This is about them, so do not make this about you.

Your boys are being thoughtful about where they spend their time and money. Be glad about that. They are not on autopilot, taking on student loans as 54% of college attendees do.

Educate Tommy that a gap year is not a goof-off year. Let him be creative and devise something he can learn from and help him get ready for the rest of his life. Maybe he can volunteer or take a class while working part-time.

Support Timmy with your joy that he knows what he wants to do. Plumbing may be just what suits him. Or he may go back to school down the road but still retain those trade skills. There are plenty of tradespeople who start off at a company and rise up to management because they are hard workers with other important skills and experience.

A couple of decades ago, my sister with her newly minted graduate degree in nursing was out with a group. She discovered a plumber friend was making more money per hour than she was. After the shock was over, she realized she still preferred being a nurse. Money is not the demonstration of success. After all, works accounts for 2,080 hours a year, and it should be satisfying.

Besides, people change careers. The average adult changes jobs more than 12 times. An 18-year-old is not making a lifetime decision. Help relieve their stress rather than add to it.

Finally, if money is left in your 529 plan after your boys are settled and have their career plans in action, the money is still available. You or your wife or other children could use it for education. Or to pay for college loans. Or you and wife can take it out and enjoy the money for your retirement — after you pay income taxes on it, of course.

The world is changing. The pandemic has shifted so much. Revisiting every situation with a grounded consciousness of today’s information will help you maintain your health, including mental and financial wellness.

CD Moriarty, CFP, is a columnist forMarketWatch and a personal-finance speaker, writer and coach. She blogs at Money Peace.



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Moving? What you should know about doing it in a pandemic


Moving is stressful enough without throwing a pandemic into the mix.

Many Americans may be forced to consider moving as some federal foreclosure and eviction moratoriums have expired. In the first week of July, 32% of Americans did not make a full, on-time housing payment, according to a nationally representative survey by the website Apartment List. Others may relocate to save money, be closer to loved ones or simply leave a densely populated area.

If you’re considering moving, here’s what to know from a financial standpoint, as well as tips to make moving day safer.

Budget for extras

Aside from the usual expenses like buying boxes, renting a van or hiring movers, plan for extra costs because of the pandemic.

You may need to buy heavy-duty supplies to deep-clean your old place, for example, or to sanitize your new accommodations. If you are moving out of a rental unit, some landlords may ask you to pay for professional cleaners or take the cost out of your security deposit.

The Big Move: I work in Silicon Valley, but my job is now remote. I can finally live somewhere cheaper. Where should I go?

Moving across county or state lines? Check what the quarantine requirements are in your new location, says Jean Wilczynski, a certified financial planner and senior wealth adviser at Exencial Wealth Advisors in Old Lyme, Connecticut. You may have to pay for quarantine accommodations like a hotel or Airbnb if your new apartment or home is not move-in ready, she says.

If you are receiving unemployment benefits, check the rules on how your benefits carry forward in your new location and what the taxes are if it is a new state, Wilczynski says. You can typically find this information on your state’s Department of Labor website, she says.

Also see: Relocating? Ask these 6 questions to find the place that’s right for you

If you are unemployed or your income has dropped as a result of the pandemic, you can also check whether you qualify for moving assistance by calling 211.

You might not be able to really get to know your new place until you’re living there, so prepare yourself (and your wallet) for surprises like leaky faucets or broken appliances. Landlords and real-estate agents may offer only virtual tours. And if you can see the new accommodations in person, you may be required to sign a waiver, wear a mask and avoid touching anything while in the house.

Stay safe during the move

How to move safely depends on whether you are doing it yourself or using movers. Current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that the main way the coronavirus spreads is through respiratory droplets, says Lindsay Slowiczek, pharmacist and drug content integrity manager at Healthline.com. That’s why wearing a mask and staying away from people is important to slow the spread of the virus, she says. Sanitizing surfaces is also an extra precaution worth taking.

Moving yourself

If you’re renting a moving truck, companies like U-Haul offer contactless pickup and drop-off options. Slowiczek suggests sanitizing the door handles, steering wheel, radio and the metal tongue on the seat belt in the rental van.

Using movers

Before picking a moving company, check its website or call and ask about its safety practices in response to the pandemic, Slowiczek says. Ask whether the movers wear masks and gloves during the move.

On moving day, she suggests being prepared with a plan to limit interaction with movers and maintain social distancing. This includes packing as many things as you can yourself, or consider using a self-pack moving container as Slowiczek did for her own recent move.

The Big Move: I’m tired of renting in Manhattan, but love living in New York. Is now the time to buy if the city is supposedly dead?

If the movers will pack the truck, create a schedule for the movers. For example, ask them to start with a particular room as you stay in another. This is also particularly useful if you live with family members who are vulnerable or immunocompromised, she says. Try to limit their involvement with the move as much as possible.

“Plan out the way [the movers] are going to move through the house,” says Slowiczek. “If possible, move all of [your boxes] to one area in your home so they don’t have to come throughout your house as much.”

Keep hand sanitizer or soap handy during the move so that you and the movers can use it periodically, she says. (Check on the FDA website that your brand of hand sanitizer is methanol-free, Slowiczek adds). After the move, use disinfectants registered with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean surfaces or furniture.

“Just using the product as-is is not enough — read the instructions on how long it should be wet on the surface,” Slowiczek says.

More from NerdWallet:



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Consumer confidence tumbles to new pandemic low after summer viral outbreak


The numbers: Consumer confidence fell in August to a new pandemic low after a fresh rash of coronavirus cases during the summer caused Americans to turn more pessimistic about an economic recovery, according to a closely followed survey.

The index of consumer confidence sank to a six-year low 84.8 this month from a revised 91.7 in July, the Conference Board said Tuesday. Economists polled by MarketWatch had forecast the index to rise to 93.0.

The surprising decline in consumer confidence puts the index below April’s 85.7 reading during the height of the economic lockdown. It may have also been spurred by the expiration of a $600 federal unemployment stipend at the end of July.

President Trump has since authorized temporary $300 payments, but not every state is providing the money and the checks are just starting to go out.

A pair of other consumer surveys, meanwhile, seem to suggest confidence is starting to mend again.

The consumer sentiment index produced by the University of Michigan edged up slightly in August, though it was still quite low. And the daily tracker by Morning Consult has been creeping higher in the past two weeks.

What happened: A rising level of confidence in May and June faltered during the summer after a new coronavirus outbreak largely in the South and West. It remains to be seen if confidence starts to rise again with caseloads receding.

An index that gauges how consumers feel about the economy right now slid to 84.2 in August from 95.9 in the prior month.

Americans are just as pessimistic about the near future. Another gauge that assesses how Americans view the next six months — the so-called future expectations index — dropped to 85.2 in August from 88.9. That’s also a new pandemic low.

“Consumer spending has rebounded in recent months but increasing concerns amongst consumers about the economic outlook and their financial well-being will likely cause spending to cool in the months ahead,” said Lynn Franco, senior director of economic indicators at the board.

Big picture: After a rollercoaster ride in the past several months, the economy has settled into a more gradual pace of recovery. Americans are venturing out to eat more often and movie theaters have started to reopen, among other things.

Yet the persistence of the coronavirus, the reduction of temporary federal benefits and still-high unemployment are likely to keep the recovery from speeding up much before the end of the year.

What they are saying? “I have to admit that I do not take this latest reading at face value,” said chief economist Stephen Stanley of Amherst Pierpont Securities. “If you believe the number, then consumers are feeling worse in August than they were in the depths of the lockdown. I can’t imagine that anyone believes that.”

“Covid-19 levels have dropped from their July peaks, and assuming that continues and broad government support is reinstated, we could see the rate of business openings, confidence and spending rise in the fall,” said corporate economist Robert Frick of Navy Federal Credit Union.

Market reaction: The Dow Jones Industrial Average
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extended its losses after the drop in confidence. The S&P 500 index
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rose slightly in Tuesday trades.



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