By BEN NUCKOLS
The Scripps National Spelling Bee won’t be held as scheduled this year because of the coronavirus, raising the possibility that years of preparation by some of the country’s top spellers could go for naught.
Scripps announced its decision Friday morning, citing recommendations against large gatherings by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the ongoing state of emergency in Maryland.
The bee had been scheduled for the week of May 24 at its longtime venue, a convention center in Oxon Hill, Maryland, just outside Washington.
Scripps said it would try to reschedule the bee for later this year but it did not commit to a new date. It’s possible the bee won’t be held at all, a prospect some spellers could hardly begin to contemplate.
“Canceling the bee would cause an emotional breakdown for most spellers,” Navneeth Murali, a 14-year-old spelling bee veteran from Edison, New Jersey, told The Associated Press. “It would basically be crushing their dreams.”
Navneeth’s parents joined with families of other top spellers to send an email to Paige Kimble, the bee’s executive director, on Thursday night, urging her to find a way to reschedule. Kimble said she would work hard to make that happen and she expressed confidence that the logistics of holding a bee later this year could be worked out.
“If it is abundantly clear that it is safe to hold an in-person gathering, we’re going to do everything we can possibly do to have that happen,” Kimble told AP. “And if it isn’t possible, we’re going to do everything in our power to re-imagine something that would still happen for kids.”
Most spellers who succeed on the national level devote years of their lives to mastering the dictionary and learning roots and language patterns. They have a narrow window to excel, with the bee open to kids only through the eighth grade. Navneeth, who finished fifth in 2018 and 11th last year, is among the eighth-graders preparing for their last shot at the title.
“Winning the National Spelling Bee has been my dream for the last three years and I think this year I have a real shot at it,” Navneeth said. “I’ve spent so many hours and made so many sacrifices in order to see this dream come true.”
The bee’s rules require only that participants not move beyond eighth grade before Aug. 31, which means if this year’s bee were held later than that, the competition could include some ninth-graders for the first time.
In addition to the restrictions in Maryland, where Gov. Larry Hogan has banned gatherings of 50 people or more until further notice, the postponement of the bee became inevitable because regional bees around the country have been called off. Kimble said 97 of the 252 spots in the field expected to be filled by the winners of sponsored regional bees remain vacant because of cancellations or postponements.
The bee also has a wild-card program, and Scripps was planning for about 400 total spellers to compete this year.
The Scripps bee began in 1925 and this year’s, if it happens, would be the 93rd. The contest was not held from 1943-45 because of World War II.
Before the virus, Scripps’ biggest concern for this year’s bee had been finding new ways to challenge the best young spellers in the English language. Last year’s bee ended in an unprecedented eight-way tie after bee organizers ran out of words difficult enough to trip up the winners. Top spellers in recent years have used personal coaches and word databases that take into account Scripps’ history and tendencies, removing much of the guesswork from the competition.
Among those spellers who has yet to earn a spot is Simone Kaplan, who finished ninth last year — just behind the eight spellers known as “octo-champs.” Simone, a 14-year-old from Davie, Florida, had her regional bee called off earlier this week.
A bee held in the fall would present new challenges for the academically gifted teenager, whose nonstop, year-round bee preparation includes regular private coaching sessions.
“I would be starting high school and I might be involved in a lot more stuff,” Simone said. “There’s honors classes that I have to study for, I might be involved in some new extracurricular activities and it might be hard to study as hard for the bee with all that going on.”
Hepzibah Sujoe, a 13-year-old from Fort Worth, Texas, said she was putting her post-spelling summer plans on hold in anticipation of preparing for a later bee. The eighth-grader’s older brother, Ansun Sujoe, was a 2014 co-champion.
“With my whole family behind me, I wanted to make this last year count,” Hepzibah said. “I really hope that Scripps still happens this year.”
The bee has a long-term deal with its host venue, the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, which can accommodate hundreds of spellers, their families and staff as well as the infrastructure required to televise the finals on ESPN. Kimble said both the venue and ESPN were open to the prospect of rescheduling.
“My heart goes out to all the spellers,” said Kimble, herself a former champion. “I’m almost 40 years removed from my speller days, but I can still keenly recall how hard I worked for, dreamed about and anticipated the national finals. We are going to do our best to make something happen in spite of the constraints that COVID-19 is imposing on all our lives.”
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