How the VHS Speech & Debate Team adapted to virtual competition


Speech and Debate competitors Anjai Gupta (10) and Caroline Hsu (10) performing their respective pieces in an online format.

As COVID-19 continues its rapid spread across the globe, surpassing a devastating 92 million cases as of January 14, the ramifications of this deadly virus can be seen throughout the globe. The Village School, too, sees the impacts of COVID, from online school to detailed and necessary in-person distancing guidelines. However, another aspect of our vibrant school has been forever impacted – extracurricular activities. From academic teams to sports to clubs, students and staff have had to adjust to online meetings, hosting virtual fundraisers, and doing what they can to continue their passions in a virtual world.

One such activity is Speech & Debate.

A staple at The Village School for many years now, Speech & Debate as a whole has seen a very drastic shift to virtual platforms. With an estimated 140,000 high school competitors nationwide, a successful shift to virtual platforms was absolutely necessary.

“I find [virtual competition] really helpful now that it has switched to online just because now we get the opportunity to go to more tournaments, and I can judge at tournaments if I want for Middle Schoolers,” said sophomore competitor Caroline Hsu, who has been competing in Speech and Debate for the past 3 years. “Personally, of course, there are always going to be technological issues, but, I think it’s gone pretty well.”

Tournaments have now taken on both asynchronous and synchronous competition wherever applicable. For instance, in most speech events, preliminary rounds are held asynchronously, while final rounds are held synchronously via zoom or a separate online platform dedicated specifically for the activity. Debate, on the other hand, must be held synchronously, as it is the live aspect of competition that makes the event successful. In both Speech and Debate, however, there have been major changes in the events themselves and the levels of competitiveness.

“You know how in the industrial age [analogy that] the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?” said sophomore competitor Anjai Gupta, now competing in Speech and Debate for a fifth year. “The rich, as in the people who are experienced and know what they’re doing, they do have a better advantage, because they can figure out the technological problems and already know how to enunciate, speak, and cut. The people who are new and don’t have the same in-person experience are left in the dark.”

To navigate these half asynchronous, half synchronous rounds, our High School competitors must spend hours after school preparing on their own time. Speech competitors must wear their full competition attire and film their pieces for tournaments from their own homes, while debate competitors must prepare their cases and converse with their teammates virtually. Additionally, as in-person practices are unsafe in our new, quarantining world, members of the team convene virtually on Tuesdays to practice their events, ensuring their skills are honed for competitions in the upcoming week, and for the years to come.

“I compare [this activity] to a sport,” said Gupta. “You would still try to keep up your physique and your skills so that when this whole thing ends, you still have some, like, ‘sportiness left in you. The same can be said with Speech. If you were so good [at Speech and Debate] and don’t do [it] for one whole year, you could lose some skills, and might have to work harder after virtual tournaments end to catch back up.”

At The Village School itself, our students have already faced major adversity while attempting to prepare for and navigate virtual tournaments. The Speech & Debate team leadership, alongside the new supervisor Sonia Chinn, have been working for hours to ensure competition, preparation, and training runs smoothly, becoming a model for a club transition from in-person to online activities.

“If there’s a viable option for specific clubs to [also] meet online, I would definitely say yes, try to transition as smoothly as Speech and Debate or Model UN did, because that transition [is] super beneficial,” said Hsu.

In all, Speech & Debate competitors at The Village School have shown great grit in combating the issues that have arisen due to COVID-19’s impacts on competition in the activity, and have found a multitude of successes in their first few tournaments, along with several students qualifying to statewide and nationwide competitions.

“Competing makes me feel like a part of something,” said Hsu.