On March 20, Scripps made an announcement that would have been unthinkable just a few months previous: the National Spelling Bee was suspended. Though Scripps did not officially cancel the bee outright, the writing was on the wall. Many journalists and bloggers – intentionally or not – used the word “cancelled” to describe the situation in their posts, prematurely lending it an air of finality. Scripps did say in a subheadline “If possible, the Bee will explore options to reschedule for later this year.” So hope remained, along with an undeniable sense of anxiety about the situation. Spellers who have – in the most extreme of situations – poured blood, sweat, and tears into studying the dictionary for this competition had the breath knocked out of them, anticipating a good word from Scripps but fearing the worst.

COVID-19 has been ruthless and tenacious. With both an infectivity and a mortality rate approaching three times that of the seasonal flu, this virus has forced the most drastic societal changes in our country’s modern history. Gatherings of all sorts have been shut down. Sports seasons have been dissolved. And on April 21st, after what I’m certain has been much deliberation, hand-wringing, prospicience, and exploring all other options, Scripps officially cancelled this year’s National Spelling Bee outright. This has not happened since World War II.

Why cancel the National Spelling Bee?

It was the right thing to do. Scripps holds the bee each year at the gargantuan Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. The bee attracts hundreds of spellers, their families, media sponsors, photographers, and bee staff. Yet the Gaylord hosts many other well-attended events simultaneously. The bee itself takes place in an enclosed ballroom with room to seat well over a hundred spellers on stage. Hundreds of audience members can watch comfortably, albeit in close proximity. And though the ballroom has fine ventilation in ordinary circumstances, it cannot mitigate the dangers of this virus.

Simply put, the bee as as we know it could not safely take place this year. The risk of infection to hundreds of people – and honestly, the risk of death to some of those people – is too high. As bee executive director Paige Kimble put it, “Our first priority has to be the health and well-being of our spellers and their families and the hundreds of staff and spectators that come together for Bee Week.”

This news, however necessary, has not been received particularly well. Eighth graders waiting to compete one last time are especially anguished; this was to be their final year, since once they reach 9th grade, they are officially too old to compete. In particular, many spellers slated to compete this year had competed at Scripps before – sometimes as many as four times. Some had studied nearly half their lifetime and were hoping to compete this one last time. They had every right to expect that the only thing standing in their way was a misspelled word. But now, the COVID-19 pandemic has erased their final chance to reach for the trophy.

Other opportunities

Two petitions have been started. Two-time Scripps finalist Sylvie Lamontagne – a spelling coach and a former protégée of mine – started a petition this morning. She has asked Scripps to allow this year’s eighth graders to compete next year to make up for this lost opportunity. How this would happen would be a matter of complex discussion, but the petition has garnered much support. In addition, a number of spellers started another petition this evening asking for Scripps to arrange a bee this summer – in person or online – open to the eighth graders who would not be eligible to compete next year.

In addition, the spelling resource company Spell Pundit will hold an online bee during the final week of May. This is an opportunity for spellers who had hoped to compete at Scripps to slake their thirst for competition. Like Scripps, the bee will consist of a written test and an oral bee. It has attracted many Scripps-level spellers, so this could be the bee to watch for 2020.

Photo credit – Mark Bowen for Scripps