Face to Face: The Bronx Science Speech and Debate Team Once Again Debates In-Person

After three years of competing virtually, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bronx Science Speech & Debate Team returns to in-person competition.


Liza Greenberg

Bronx Science Speech and Debate members run the annual Big Bronx tournament, hosted in-person at Bronx Science this October 14th to 16th, 2022, for the first time since October 2019, due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

The alarm goes off at 7:00 a.m. At 8:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, the laptop is neatly positioned on the desk with printer paper, and multicolor pens are in a pen holder off to the side. Parents are asleep, but Bronx Science debaters are already wearing blazers from the waist up, but wearing sweatpants from the waist down, too. The entire weekend is spent at that desk, staring into the computer screen, arguing with strangers about revising the Japanese constitution, over Zoom. 

This is what the Speech and Debate experience has been over the past three years, due to the ongoing global Coronavirus pandemic, which swept across the world starting in March 2022. Before this current 2022-2023 academic school year, the Bronx Science Speech & Debate team, with over 400 members, competed exclusively online for the past three years, with the exception of one tournament that was held in May 2022. But historically, the Speech & Debate team has always offered exciting and unique opportunities to students, allowing dedicated members to travel across the country to various high schools and universities with their teammates, in order to compete in person against students from other schools. 

In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic, students traveled to universities such as Princeton and Harvard, and to tournaments in Florida and Arizona, among countless other locales. The Speech & Debate team has a storied tradition and a winning record, known throughout the Bronx Science community, past and present, with celebratory win posters in the main entrance lobby, and with their numerous successes documented during the morning announcements. 

For many Bronx Science students, the social aspect of meeting debaters from all over the country and bonding with teammates was just as vital as the actual activity of debating. The pandemic changed all of this.  

Still, the Speech and Debate team continued over Zoom during the past three years, out of necessity, and thrived, at least in student numbers. Speech and Debate practice transitioned to a mix of online and in-person meetings during the 2021-2022 academic year, with all tournaments exclusively online. Interestingly, during the 2020-2021 academic year, when Speech & Debate was fully online, the team had more student sign-ups than they have during this current year, perhaps due to the ease of debating from home. Now, debates are transitioning back to in-person events, and Bronx Science hosted the annual “Big Bronx” tournament in-person from October 14th to 16th, 2022, for the first time since 2019. However, a few tournaments currently remain online during the 2022-2023 academic year, such as The University of Kentucky Season Opener and the Glenbrooks Speech and Debate Tournament.

Many competitors found online debating to be less thrilling than debating in person, and began to tire of sitting in their rooms all weekend on Zoom. Vivian Yellen ’23, Speech and Debate Team President, said, “In the beginning, online debate tended to be more difficult, because there was a diverse and dense entry pool. That was before people started becoming weary of online debate and stopped competing as much.”

For many students, virtual debating was not as engaging as in-person debating. Nevertheless, some Speech & Debaters managed to find silver linings. Tara Tomic ’25, a Varsity Congress debater, said, “I enjoyed virtual debate, because you had free time afterwards; you get it done, you finish your round. When you turned off the computer, you could do whatever you want. When you’re in in-person debate, you have to stay at the tournament for the entire time, plus you need to travel to the hosting school and wait for the awards ceremony at the end.” 

Virtual debate also made tournaments more accessible to students around the globe. Yellen said, “The online debate setting was a game-changer for a lot of equity reasons. People were able to compete more often and didn’t necessarily need a lot of school support or financial resources.” Tournaments requiring travel to another city are typically expensive, given hotel, airfare, food, and tournament costs, even with generous subsidies from The Bronx Science Alumni Foundation, Inc. 

Yellen noted, “I think that competing back in person is going to be difficult for a lot of Speech & Debate teams at other schools that found a lot of success competing online, but don’t have the same type of resources to be back in person, and that’s going to be one of the largest differences between past and present, in terms of Speech & Debate.” 

Luckily, thanks to Bronx Science’s Alumni Foundation, Inc., we are able to provide financial aid to students who cannot afford to pay for travel, hotel, and food costs for Speech & Debate trips, but this is not the situation at many high schools across the country. Many smaller or more remote schools found incredible success online, given that the barriers to access financially were not an issue. As Yellen noted, “During remote tournaments, teams from really small schools who were really talented were able to show up and win, when they might not have had the resources to do the same  in person.”

Now as life under the third year of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is inching closer to pre-pandemic times, students who give their weekends and free hours to Speech & Debate are getting some of the excitement of the ‘in person’ experience back. At the beginning of the 2022-2023 academic year, most of the current Speech & Debate team members had never experienced in-person debate, aside from some Class of 2023 seniors who traveled early in their novice year, pre-pandemic. 

For these seniors, in-person debate is like a fever dream. Carlton Roe, a senior at Regis High School, attended the New York City Invitational Tournament, otherwise known as “Big Bronx.” It was one of the first in-person tournaments that he attended since his ninth grade year, where he only competed a few times locally. He said that he had forgotten that student debaters were a lot more respectful during in-person tournaments. He also noted that during online tournaments, he felt as though when debaters weren’t in a physical room with other debaters from other high schools, that a little bit of one’s humanity was lost. 

The entire Bronx Science Speech & Debate team got a true sense of the hustle and bustle of in-person debate during the national tournament hosted at Bronx Science during the weekend of October 14th to 16th, 2o22, called ‘The New York City Invitational,’ otherwise known as ‘Big Bronx.’ Members of the Bronx Science Speech & Debate team learned just how much sweat and labor is required to run an in-person debate tournament, especially on the administrative end. Students worked shifts upwards of twelve hours, serving food, directing people to their rooms assigned for the debate tournaments, and helping to ensure that the tournament ran smoothly.

Much of what was missed during online Speech & Debate tournaments were the spontaneous conversations and connections between team members that occur during in-person events. (Liza Greenberg)

Although running a Speech & Debate tournament is certainly a substantial amount of work, competing in the tournament also takes a lot out of the competitors. Sudarsan Supraja, from Strath Haven High School in Pennsylvania said, “In-person debate is definitely more tiring when you are running around between rooms or between buildings in very short amounts of time. However, when you debate in-person, you can connect with the audience, and you actually feel like you’re having an impact. I feel like what I say is truly being heard.”

A few select members of the Bronx Science Speech & Debate team attended the Yale Invitational this September 2022. For Chris Proccacino ’25, it was his first ever Congress debate in-person event, after a year of competing virtually. He described the experience as “thrilling and exhausting,” and said that the exhaustion actually felt good. He noted, “It was difficult having my first-in-person tournament, one that was so competitive. The debaters were really good and incredibly persuasive to the audience, which was a bit overwhelming. Yet, overall the experience felt very worthwhile.”

Bronx Science debaters return from their recent debate, after a victory. (Liza Greenberg)

In-person debate fundamentally changes the team dynamic. Yellen said, “Online debate really fractured the dynamic of the team in a sense that everyone was really individual in terms of their competition. My favorite moments from the times I have been competing in-person is staying up late in a hotel preparing for a debate, with my friends. There’s a team-bonding aspect that stretches beyond grade level and the type of debate to which you are assigned, which is completely unmatched during online virtual debate tournaments.” 

The general consensus amongst Bronx Science Speech & Debate students is that returning to in-person is vital. As Tomic said, “We are a lot more of a team than we were online only.”

My favorite moments from the times I have been competing in-person is staying up late in a hotel preparing for a debate, with my friends. There’s a team-bonding aspect that stretches beyond grade level and the type of debate to which you are assigned, which is completely unmatched during online virtual debate tournaments,” said Vivian Yellen, President of the Speech and Debate Team.