The 2022 Spartan Debate Institute will be online. I realize some people might be confused (maybe even baffled) by our decision to host the SDI online again this summer so I’m hoping to shed some light on the decision.
Benefits of Online Debate
First, we still believe in the transformational power of online debate to be more accessible and affordable to more students. Starting in the summer of 2019 (well before COVID-19), the SDI was leading in online debate by piloting remote instruction and practice debates. The promise we saw in online debate related to flexibility, affordability, and individualized curriculum. Online camp gives students the ability to fit online debate into busy summer schedules. Relative to brick and mortar camp, online instruction can be offered at a much lower price point. Hosting lectures and content online can allow instructors to tailor the experience to each student attending the camp. Instead of long, unguided research hours or a large group lecture, online content can be atomized and targeted to students’ specific needs.
Affordability is something that’s especially important to me. It was difficult for my family to afford debate camp when I was in high school and I was in a relatively privileged position. So many students are priced out of the debate camp experience because of the way camps have chosen to structure themselves. It was valuable to me to offer an online option for students looking for 6+ weeks of camp.
Feasibility and Hybrid Models
That may still leave people wondering why we didn’t offer hybrid options at the 2022 SDI. There was no model of hybrid instruction that I felt would serve both sets of students simultaneously. A hybrid option where students in a single lab were both online and in person struggles to cater to two audiences. Online students have to Zoom in for live lectures that aren’t meant for them and best practice suggests that, especially online, lectures should be shorter. It would also place a strain on our instructional staff to simultaneously manage two different sets of students. A hybrid option where some labs were online and some labs were in person creates a tiered structure and logistical obligations – it would be essentially deciding to run two debate camps simultaneously.
Health, Safety, and Student Experience
In addition, it’s incredibly unclear to me that the SDI (or other debate camps for that matter) will be permitted to host their summer youth programs in person safely. MSU and MSU Youth Programs are still currently prohibiting in-person youth programs to ensure campus safety and they are far from issuing guidance about what a return to in-person programs would look like. Without knowing what the COVID-19 protocols would look like, I didn’t feel like we could promise the summer debate camp experience students deserve.
Around this time a year ago, several camps were still keeping the door open to hosting 2021 programming in person. I posted a Twitter thread raising questions that I felt like were important to student health, safety, and experience. Many of those continue to be salient and unfortunately unanswered. Will your institution permit you to have a vaccine mandate for minors? What are the impacts on program design (e.g. will you limit large group lectures and keep labs smaller to allow social distancing)? What are the impacts on the residential experience (e.g. will students be housed in single rooms to minimize close contacts, will students be able to use campus dining facilities or have boxed food at meals)?
When a student chooses to attend the SDI, I feel an immense responsibility for their well-being while they’re on campus (not to mention the literal legal liability that the camp assumes). A few camps have provided some information about what their testing, masking, and vaccine requirements will be but there doesn’t seem to be a clear picture about how illness would be handled at camp. I’m uncertain what would happen if a student tested positive or had a close COVID-positive contact while at a residential camp. No debate camp that I’ve seen has provided information about how they would arrange and supervise quarantine housing.
That’s all in addition to navigating a health system that is stretched to the brink. Over the course of the month that students are residential at the SDI, it’s normal for people to get sick or injured aside from COVID-19. We’ve all been to the debate tournament where everyone leaves with a cold. Now students with symptoms would need to be tested (sometimes requiring a lengthy wait for results). Students who need medical care for something other than COVID-19 would be met with overstretched hospitals and urgent care facilities. School systems with much larger infrastructures than debate camp are currently struggling to staff classrooms because of some of those issues already.
I understand the desire to do everything possible to give students the most enriching experience. Some of you might think that deciding to host the 2022 SDI online proves otherwise but this decision is most in line with the values I have for the SDI. I want students to have an inspiring, educational, and safe debate camp. It was a difficult decision but I’m not willing to wait and see, hope for the best, and figure it out later when it comes to student experience and health. It feels disingenuous to ask families to place deposits for an in-person camp when I don’t know if we’ll be permitted to have one or what the in-person camp experience would look like. I want to be honest about how we came to this decision and focus on making the online 2022 SDI the best that it can be.