Nichols Middle School. (Google Maps image)

Today is opening day. Not just for most football teams in the Big Ten Conference, but also for teams in the Illinois Middle School Debate League.

But three middle schools in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 had to pull out of today’s tournament at the last minute, while the District ponders the future of clubs during the coronavirus pandemic. Those connected with the teams are not happy, with both the decision and the timing.

“They let these kids get excited and practice for two months,” says Ellen King, whose eighth grade son is on the Nichols Middle School debate team. In an email to district officials, King said she was “infuriated” that the district put club activities on hold just a few days before the first scheduled debate tournament.

“I’m blown away,” King says, because debate practices and tournaments are safely held on Zoom. “This should be thriving under COVID,” she says. But now, the district has been “unnecessarily cruel to the kids” by blocking tournament participation just three days before the event.

At least 60 students at Nichols, King Arts, and Bessie Rhodes are on debate teams and would have taken part in today’s tournament. Teams at Chute and Haven had to disband because they could not find coaches during the pandemic.

In an email to King, Assistant Superintendent Stacy Beardsley says “at this time, a final decision about debate has not been made. Due to ongoing remote learning, clubs are suspended until we have clear information on budget and club approval process.” Beardsley says once a study is finished, “the District will consider the full complement of requests for club funding to determine what District 65 can support this year based on our learning environments and funding constraints.”

Nearly 300 people have signed an online petition urging District 65 administrators to keep debate teams alive during this difficult, COVID-impacted school year. “Debate club is an integral part of … this most sacred civic mission” of personal academic growth and civic involvement, the petition states.

One major issue is apparently money, although King has suggested a solution to the District. According to the petition, District 65 sets aside a small amount each year for debate clubs. But the pandemic has hit school budgets with unexpected costs, and losses of revenue.

King says that if District 65 cannot fund the debate program, parents are willing to raise the money … not just for a specific school, but for all five middle schools with debate clubs. She says Evanston/Skokie District 65 could then have one diverse, district-wide team which could enter future tournaments.

“Let us fund it,” King says. “It would teach the kids to fight for something which is worthwhile.”

In another email, Beardsley tells King that parent funding is a “possible solution,” which will be considered early next week. However, no date for a decision was stated.

So for now, District 65 debate teams remain in limbo. King says instead of taking part, her son is watching today’s tournament, with five teams from outside District 65, on Zoom. “These kids are so passionate,” she says.

King also points out that by missing the tournament, and perhaps future events, District 65 debate club members are missing the chance to talk about this school year’s debate topic, one of the most critical issues of our time, criminal justice reform.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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