Debate Amidst A Pandemic 

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Catherine Auerbach

2020 has been an incredibly eventful year. Issues like the COVID-19 pandemic and the presidential election have further polarized an already divided nation. Maskers vs. anti-maskers, Biden vs. Trump supporters, climate activists vs. big corporations, promoters of the COVID-19 vaccine vs. anti-vaxxers; America is more divided than ever, but with division comes an essential antidote. Debate. 

Now in its sixth year of action, the WESS debate team has just started up again for the 2020-2021 school year. In their first meeting on November 23rd, longtime debaters, as well as new students, met together on Zoom to discuss this year’s debate season and, ultimately, how to best conduct such a social and competitive activity through the screen. In past years, students have met once a week to perform mock debates and prepare for in-person tournaments. Now that debate has gone virtual, how much of the debate that WESS debaters know and love has to change? 

Jessica Katz, WESS’s AP Spanish teacher, will be the team’s new advisor and coach. Katz anticipates that despite the switch to a digital setting, virtual debates will be “very similar” to in-person ones. 

From what I’ve heard and read, they have made a thorough transition to uphold the integrity of the debates,” Katz said. There may be less socialization though between debaters from different schools whereas at in person tournaments there might be more camaraderie.

Socialization between different teams and different schools is part of what makes debate tournaments so fun, and is an aspect that will be greatly missed as the transition is made to virtual tournaments. 

Jasmine Sanchez, an 11th grade debater who has been on the WESS debate team since sixth grade, felt less concerned about socialization, but rather about the speaking aspect of the debates. “I’m hoping that the virtual debates will be more or less the same but I think that it could impact how smoothly the tournaments go due to technical difficulties,” Sanchez shared.

 Given that debates are judged not only on a speaker’s points and arguments but also on their speaking skills (for example, the tone and volume of their voice), tournaments could be severely disrupted and judging results skewed by factors like bad WiFi or poor audio quality. 

Debater Eliana Cotter voiced this concern as well. “Factors like timing are also going to be really difficult to control when people’s WiFi might force them to repeat themselves,” Cotter said. 

Nevertheless, students expressed excitement about the resumption of debate, and the new opportunities it brings this year. Unlike in past years, the WESS debate team will be joining the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA), giving debaters access to more tournaments and teams from across the country. Virtual debate may also allow WESS to debate with teams that are farther away over Zoom, which wouldn’t have been possible before. With its limitations, virtual debate also brings a new span of possibilities. 

WESS debaters will participate in their first tournament of the school year on December 6th. The upcoming topics are “US military export arms sales do more good than harm” and “Animals should have standing to sue.” As debaters must prepare to debate for both sides, WESS debate encourages students to practice seeing both sides of any story. By gaining knowledge on complex arguments and discussing with peers, WESS debaters are developing essential skills in advocacy and public speech, skills they can utilize forever.