Debate Team Continues to Shine in New, Virtual Format

Debate Team Continues to Shine in New, Virtual Format

The Woodward debate team competed in the State Tournament in early March, not knowing it would be their last in-person competition for the foreseeable future. As the world shut down amid the pandemic, the National Debate Coaches Association National Tournament was canceled, and the 2019-2020 season was effectively ended.

Pretty much immediately, debate coaches around the state started discussing what would happen in the fall.

“We realized that national travel wasn't going to be an option for a while,” said Maggie Berthiaume, Woodward’s director of debate. “Georgia's debate coaches voted in early May to have the fall semester be entirely virtual—I believe we were the first state to do that.”

The National Debate Coaches Association soon after met with public health experts who warned that because COVID-19 almost certainly spreads through airborne particles, any in-person event that requires talking presents a danger. National tournaments then began shifting to a virtual model.

How does a virtual debate compare to an in-person version?

“It’s a great substitute for in-person debating during a pandemic, but I think almost all participants would agree that there's quite a bit lost from not having the in-person experience,” Berthiaume said. “It's much harder to read non-verbals virtually, and in-round strategizing is a lot more challenging when your debate partner isn't sitting next to you! There's also a lot of community lost by not being together—the benefits of making friends and building team relationships are much harder when we can't come together as a group.”

The biggest surprise, she said, was how exhausting it is to debate virtually. The students all found themselves drained from a whole day of being online, even though they were at home rather than having to fly to another city.

The first virtual debate of the season was the Niles Township Invitational, hosted by Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill., which brought together (by computer) teams from nine states. It might have been Woodward’s first ever online debate, but the team performed well. Senior Sachi Reddy and junior Ashna Ghanate were the event’s champions.

Berthiaume said the event ran smoothly, and all three Woodward teams reached the elimination rounds. 

“I've been extremely impressed with how well our students have adapted both practically and emotionally,” she said. “We're really lucky to be part of an activity that's possible to do virtually —our competitors include schools from full virtual to full in-person. Well over half of the Woodward varsity team is also full-virtual at this point, so it's great that debate is an activity they can participate in fully without ever having to leave home.

“I think extracurricular activities like debate are so essential to the overall high school experience, and working with the students to reimagine debate virtually has been valuable to all of us. It's also great to have experiences that feel ‘mostly normal’ even when nothing else does.”