The Scripps National Spelling Bee won’t be held as scheduled this year because of the coronavirus.
Scripps announced the 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 was scheduled to start on 24 May 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, staged annually since 1925 except for a three-year hiatus during the second world war, won’t be held at all.
“While the timing of the national finals is just outside the eight-week window recommended by the CDC, this is the safest and most responsible action,” Scripps said in a statement. “This was a difficult decision that unfortunately will disappoint students who have spent a great deal of time studying and preparing, along with their parents and teachers who have supported them. The focus now shifts to exploring all options to possibly reimagine a competition for later this year.”
Before the virus, Scripps’ biggest concern for this year’s bee was 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 organizers ran out of words difficult enough to trip up the winners.
Rishik Gandhasri, Erin Howard, Saketh Sundar, Shruthika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao and Rojan Raja combined to spell the final 47 words correctly over five consecutive perfect rounds, an exhibition of orthographic precision unlike any witnessed before in the 94-year history of the competition.
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.
The so-called ‘octo-champs’ emerged from a field of more than 11 million students, ranging in age from seven to 15 and hailing from all 50 US states, overseas territories and six other countries: the Bahamas, Canada, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan and South Korea.
Rescheduling would potentially require adjustments to eligibility rules and qualifying. Some local and regional bees have been postponed because of the virus, preventing spellers from qualifying for nationals. And the bee has historically been open to students only through the eighth grade. A bee held this fall would presumably include ninth-graders.
A rescheduled bee would also present logistical challenges because of the bee’s need for a host venue that can accommodate roughly 400 spellers and their families, along with staff and television infrastructure. The finals of the competition are broadcast on ESPN, with preliminary rounds on ESPN2, and that too could pose difficulties in the fall because of the sports network’s other commitments.