While several sports and in-person educational activities were winding down this fall due to rising COVID-19 case numbers, students on the Duluth debate team were able to continue with their competitions as planned. Debate practices and competition have switched to a virtual format, which students said brought both joy and difficulties.

"Even with the technical difficulties and the pandemic, I'm just glad we've been able to make it work and still have debate this year," said Denfeld junior and Lincoln Douglas debater Vivian Shaffer.

Fellow junior and congressional debater Madeline Bjonskaas agreed.

"We all love it, even though it looks different this year," she said. "It makes school work easier, knowing that we have something to look forward to at the end of the day. I get to see these amazing people, virtually most of the time, and work on our debate prep."

Members of the Duluth debate team meet via Google Meet to reflect on the season. From top left: Madeline Bjonskaas and coach Brian Schilling. Second row: Vivian Shaffer and Alison Rimolde. (Screenshot)
Members of the Duluth debate team meet via Google Meet to reflect on the season. From top left: Madeline Bjonskaas and coach Brian Schilling. Second row: Vivian Shaffer and Alison Rimolde. (Screenshot)

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The Duluth debate team consists of students at both Duluth Denfeld and East high schools. The students compete in three competitions: congressional debate, public forum and Lincoln-Douglas debate.

As the name would imply, Lincoln-Douglas (LD) debate is set up like a presidential debate: Individuals speakers square off on the pros and cons, or in debate lingo, affirmation and negation — sides of a specific issue. Speakers in this category mainly focus on values and moral questions.

Public forum (PF), on the other hand, is incredibly fact-based. In this debate, pairs of speakers face off against another pair.

In both PF and LD, the speakers are given a topic every two months. They must research both sides and be prepared to present either the affirmation or negation side every other round. Debate tournaments typically have five rounds, so speakers can expect to present the pro or con side every single Saturday at a meet.

Duluth debater Vivian Shaffer masks up for an in-person debate practice this winter.
Duluth debater Vivian Shaffer masks up for an in-person debate practice this winter.

"We usually have 10-15 minutes between rounds where I'd normally talk with my fellow debaters teammates," Shaffer said. "This year, I’ll go downstairs and talk to my mom about how it went. She doesn't always totally get what I'm talking about, but she listens and lets me get everything out."

Shaffer said it feels unusual to "compete just a few feet away from where I sleep" but that she appreciates the chance to sleep in on Saturday mornings. Normally, students need to be on the debate bus by 4 or 5 a.m. This year, she catches a virtual bus with her teammates online about half an hour before the start of the meet.

"I get to sleep in, hop into my suit, like, 15 minutes beforehand and log on," Shaffer said.

Duluth debater Alison Rimolde prepares for her next competition during the debate season. (Photo courtesy of Jill Lofald)
Duluth debater Alison Rimolde prepares for her next competition during the debate season. (Photo courtesy of Jill Lofald)

Her fellow debate participant Alison Rimolde shares her enthusiasm for sleeping in, but she doesn't get to do so as late as Shaffer. As a public forum debater, Rimolde needed to prepare a little earlier on Saturdays in order to welcome her debate partner Kelly Wagner. The two would meet up each week and compete in the same room, albeit socially distanced.

"We have an extra room in the back of the house where we meet each week," Rimolde said. "It's really nice to have someone right there to talk to in between rounds."

The virtual debate format has led to some interesting changes for Rimolde, though. Normally, it is against the rules for public forum debaters to look at their opponents when speaking.

"But with everyone on video chats, they're right there, looking at me the entire time," Rimolde said. "It's just a different feeling. But it could be worse."

Things have also changed significantly for congressional debater Bjonskaas. Congressional debate is basically a mock congress where students present bills and deliver speeches about the merits and downsides of each bill. The students write up the bills in advance and submit them to the tournament manager. Every week, the tournament manager alerts the competing schools what bills could be on the docket, and students spend the week researching, writing speeches and practicing their delivery.

On the day of the meet, the students hold caucuses before the rounds and decide which bills will be on the docket. That's where the virtual format presented some challenges for Bjonskaas.

"We get eight pieces of legislation, but we usually only make it through four to six pieces," she said. "So we would find our fellow competitors beforehand and talk about what pieces we really want to actually debate. With the virtual aspect, we lost beforehand talk."

Bjonskaas said it was difficult to proceed normally without the chance to talk to her fellow congresspeople. But by the middle of the season, participants started to catch on and found ways to log on early.

"We'd spend 5-10 minutes discussing what would work best for everyone, and it made things much easier. It's still hard to get everyone's input, but it's better than it was," Bjonskaas said.

After the pre-meeting, the round follows parliamentary procedure and allows students limited amounts of time to deliver speeches in support or against bills and vote to see if they pass.

The virtual format this season brought with it some technical difficulties. Dropped video calls, late rounds, broken mics, frozen speakers and confusion were some of the factors the students dealt with.

“One time, we had a judge vanish on us in the middle of a round,” Rimolde said. “But we just exchanged emojis in the chat with the other team until they came back.”

As the season progressed, students and judges learned to deal with the issues as they arose.

“In congress, we’d work together if someone was having some problem,” Bjonskaas said. “If someone had a bad connection, we’d all turn our cameras off to help them get a better connection. And if something went out, the judges would let us add time back on to the end of our session to ensure each debater was still getting the best opportunity they could.”

Debate season wrapped up with the section tournament on Jan. 9. Rimolde and her partner advanced to the Minnesota State High School League state competition on Jan. 15 and 16, also held virtually.