Garden City High School debate teacher and Coach Russ Tidwell has been around the high school program long enough to know when a challenge is presented unlike any other he’s experienced.
That will be the big issue for the Buffaloes’ coach on Saturday as he oversees the Garden City High School Debate Invitational.
Under normal circumstances, the tournament would attract schools from a closer geographic area, but this year, with the COVID-19 outbreak limiting travel and in-person competition, Tidwell has gone to hosting an all virtual tournament.
The result has been an overwhelming increase in the number of teams, this year attracting 24 schools with 94 teams and 188 individuals competing from the friendly confines of their own schools or homes across Kansas.
“It’s been an interesting challenge and experience,” said Tidwell. “We’ve been very fortunate to have already competed in about 10-15 events, but I’ve never hosted one. The biggest challenge is the technology aspect of it to make sure everyone has a strong internet connection.”
Tidwell said that a software program developed by the National Speech and Debate Association has made his task considerably easier.
“They set everything up for you, so on Saturday all I need to do is make sure I push all the right buttons,” he said. “You’re interacting with the software now more as a host than just as a user. The judges also have to do their ballots online as opposed to the usual paper ballots.”
There will no live-streaming of the event according to Tidwell, so results won’t be known until the tournament concludes. The first round begins at 8 a.m., with following rounds to start at 10:30 a.m., 1 and 3:30 p.m. Usually, there are five rounds in a debate tournament but with the online competition, one round has been eliminated.
“It’s the biggest invitational we’ve hosted, so there’s always a little bit of anxiety to go with it,” Tidwell said. “But the Garden City community for debate has been tremendous in their support. We’ve got judges lined up and other volunteers to make this work. I’m so proud of what they’ve done in support of our program.”
Tidwell said that Zoom will be the online program used to bring the debate teams and judges together. There will be two Zoom meetings established on the computer screen and breakout rooms will be used on Zoom as well. The biggest thing is getting folks who are comfortable with Zoom. He also expressed thanks to a group from Wichita, Ad Astra, for helping get the tournament organized.
“When you think about where we were in March when we had to go totally virtual with no experience in it, to where we are now all online, it’s been an impressive thing to see,” Tidwell said. “We’re hopefully training ourselves to use something that we may never have to use again.”
There are three divisions of competition during the Saturday event – Novice (1st year), JV (2nd year) and Open. Two members comprise a team, and all competitors will be at their own home on their computers.
Tidwell’s more experienced debate teams who would usually compete in the Open division, are taking the day off after an extensive fall schedule of about 15 events. Four of those teams have already qualified for the state competition, including teams of seniors Gracie Mueller and Reagan Wright, juniors Melanie Varela and Natalie Radke, sophomore Shawn Dreiling and junior Chris Brahmbhatt, and sophomores Alejandra Facio and Kiley Kilgore.
Competing this weekend for the Buffs will be novice teams of all freshmen Sam Jacobs and Devin Douglass and Cassandra Koehn and Liam Miller. Competing in the JV division will be sophomores Bailey Hutcheson and Kiera Hageman.
With nearly all of the virtual tournament preparation being new, Tidwell said it was a credit to everyone involved that they’ve been able to make it work.
“It’s amazing we’ve been able to figure this out,” he said. “There are fewer schools hosting because of the tech issues, but those schools that have hosted have all done a really good job.”
In a recent event hosted by Great Bend, the team of Facio and Kilgore won their JV division.
“It’s harder to medal now because they took one round out of the competition so there are more ties,” Tidwell said. “Ties are then broken by scoring points.”
Tidwell said he thinks the students have adapted to the virtual tournaments better than he could have anticipated.
“My perception is that the changes for the kids have not diminished the competition,” Tidwell said. “The competition is just as real on a computer screen as it is in the real world. Mentally, they’ve been able to make the adjustments and realize that this is still a competition.”
One difference that Tidwell has seen is how the student competitors conduct themselves when they are on the screen all the time. Competitors need to be more careful about how they act on camera, Tidwell said.
“For me, one of the biggest things I miss is the traveling with the kids,” Tidwell said. “The van rides, eating together, all of that we miss. I also was able to use driving time to teach and coach the kids. I had them captive and I think it helped their bonding as a team.”