The Scripps National Spelling Bee will not hold its popular finals event this year, calling off a showdown of the country's best young spellers due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It's the first time the spelling bee has been canceled since World War II.
The finals had originally been scheduled to be held in Maryland in late May, but organizers postponed the event last month, saying they hoped to reschedule the showcase event for later this year.
"The Bee has determined there is no clear path to safely set a new date in 2020," organizers said in an update Tuesday.
Spelling bee officials say there is still too much uncertainty about when public gatherings can safely resume in the U.S., which is reporting far more coronavirus cases than any country in the world.
The cancellation is a sharp blow to hundreds of expert spellers who had been hoping to contend for the national championship in the final months of the eighth grade — their last year of eligibility. With the finals called off, those spellers won't get the chance to compete at the highest level.
"Our hearts go out to the spellers who won't get their final shot at winning because of the pandemic and the difficult decisions it is prompting us to make," said Paige Kimble, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. "They are now part of a widely expanding group of children and adults who are missing out on opportunities due to the coronavirus."
While praising the students for their hard work and studies, Kimble added, "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."
The national spelling bee, which began in 1925, had been riding a wave of popularity in recent years, thanks to inspiring young spellers and competitions that have been both intense and dramatic. Last year's event broke records as eight contestants were named co-champions after 20 rounds of spelling.
The 2019 winners each received a $50,000 cash prize and a Scripps Cup. This year, national finalists will be sent a backpack in the mail, along with some keepsakes, the Bee says.
More than 150 regional champions were able to secure their titles before concerns about the coronavirus forced severe disruptions at schools. Roughly 400 other national finalist slots will now be left in limbo.
Describing the effort it takes to reach the national finals, Shalini Shankar, author of Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z's New Path to Success, told NPR last year that the students "spend hours before school, after school, on weekends really honing their craft to become elite spellers."
Organizers say they considered several ways to hold the national finals in an online environment – mirroring the digital migration thousands of schools have been forced make. But "there was not a clear path for a virtual event," the spelling competition said.
"The national finals is much more than a competition," the Bee said. Describing Bee Week as a time for contestants and their families to make lifelong friends, the organizers added, "Trying to replace that experience with a stay-at-home version would pale in comparison."
During the COVID-19 school shutdowns, the Scripps National Spelling Bee has been sending weekly emails to parents and teachers, promising "a variety of resources for first through eighth grade students, including spelling lists, vocabulary worksheets and resources for some of the Bee's favorite books."