Two former Scripps National Spelling Bee competitors are making sure this year's spellers still have their moment in the sun.
When siblings Shobha Dasari, 19, and Shourav Dasari, 17, heard that the 2020 Scripps National Spelling Bee was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic for the first time since WWII, the siblings decided to step in, organizing an online spelling bee instead.
Approximately 200 spellers have registered to participate, according to the siblings. Many are eighth graders who will not be eligible to participate next year due to the tournament's age limit.
“Eighth graders who would have qualified for this year's spelling bee, they can’t come back next year as ninth graders. A lot of people were upset about that,” Shourav said, explaining that the online bee is a "substitution and just for the eighth graders that put in all that work for the National Spelling Bee."
The Dasaris, from Woodlands, Texas, have been competitive spellers until they each hit the age limit (age 14 or eight grade). But they still wanted to contribute to the spelling bee world. In 2017, the two created Spell Pundit, a platform prep program that provides resources to spellers for an annual fee.
“There wasn’t really a comprehensive word list out there,” Shobha, now a freshman at Stanford University, said, adding that she spent time searching word lists instead of studying them. "We provide a learning mode and a testing mode. Learning mode has flashcards with words and testing mode is a similar format but the speller can quiz themselves and write out the words."
In March, as word of a probable cancellation spread, the two quickly mobilized to launch the online bee.
“We've entertained hosting an online spelling bee for a year now,” Shourav said but the COVID-19 pandemic "accelerated the process."
The judges for the virtual bee are past spellers who have become friends of Shobha and Shourva from their years of competing.
The siblings charged a $25 nonrefundable registration fee and the event is open to kids in grades first to eighth.
Through the registration fees for the virtual event, the winning contestants will not be leaving this virtual competition empty-handed. The first place winner gets a $2,500 cash prize, second place will receive $1,000 and third place will receive $500. Judges and the pronouncers will also get compensated for their work.
The virtual spelling bee will run from May 23 to May 28 and be livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube.
“Written tests are May 23-24, the semifinal rounds are May 26-27, and the final round is May 28,” Shobha said.
Shalini Shankar, a professor at Northwestern University and author of "Beeline," a book that explores Generation Z's new path to success through the lens of spelling bee competitors, said the initiative is important.
“They need an outlet, even if this is not the official contest. It's so important that all of their efforts aren't completely for nothing and that they have a chance to at least, you know, flex what they've learned,” Shankar said.
Despite the unofficial circumstances, the competition is an honor system and kids are trusted not to seek help from any external resources. Based on her experience with these kids, Shankar said she expects they will all conduct themselves with honesty and integrity.
“What I found out about the kids that competed in the live spelling bees is that they had a lot of integrity. They don't want a trophy unless it's real,” Dr. Shankar said.