Participation Philosophy & Virtual Exception Allowances

The Wisconsin Interscholastic Speech & Dramatic Arts Association (WISDAA), an affiliate of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), has fostered contests between schools in speech, debate, and theatre for well over 100 years. These contests bring students and teachers together for constructive assessment and recognition in a multi-institutional setting, where participants learn as much from listening to others as they do when expressing their own and gaining feedback. Immediate audience feedback and oral response by evaluating adjudicators (contest officials) provides a more authentic educational experience in the same shared physical space.

As a stopgap to keep students engaged during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, this association, along with many others, pivoted to providing opportunities for virtual submission of prerecorded video performances; however, student participation levels decreased by more than half, and those who participated merely submitted videos and seldom watched those of their peers, even though those videos were made available.

Therefore, it is the position of WISDAA that schools are expected to participate in-person, whenever safe to do so.  The Association’s Eligibility Review Committee will appraise requests for virtual participation exceptions where the same circumstances would apply that would limit participation by any of that school’s interscholastic teams, including athletic or music (band, solo/ensemble, etc.). This may include, but is not limited to: public health outbreaks, inclement weather, etc.

In non-team/individual contests, additional factors may be considered to allow for virtual participation, including standards consistent with a school’s policies for excused absence, or conflict with another school-sponsored interscholastic contest/activity.

Detailed Information

Under Wisconsin law, each contest host venue has autonomy to set its own parameters based on its own public health guidelines/restrictions in place, including, but not limited to:

  • face masks/coverings (constant requirement)
  • face masks/coverings (except when performing/presenting)
  • social distancing
  • temperature checks
  • proof of either vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test (within a certain period of time prior to the contest). The host venue must determine how it will securely collect that information from participating schools, and participating schools must have consent of parents to release such information.

Each school/institution that hosts a WISDAA contest must inform the State Office (and provide any subsequent changes/updates) of any public health requirements in place, and communicate to guest schools what is expected of their participants (students, coaches, adjudicators). Each guest school must adhere to host venue requirements or their own school’s requirements, whichever is more restrictive.

See Contest Protocols for a listing of currently reported protocols for all official WISDAA contests.

Schools whose students, adjudicators, and/or coaches fail to comply may be asked to leave the premises of the contest venue, and if students have not yet been fully evaluated, their school may submit a recorded virtual entry for evaluation, if within the deadline for asynchronous adjudication at that contest level. Schools whose adjudicators have not completed their obligated assignment will be assessed a prorated uncovered adjudicator fee; adjudicators who exhibit insubordination to such protocols may have their certification suspended until public health protocols have ended.</P.

Aerosol Study; Advice

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), to which WHSFA is affiliated, has commissioned a study with the University of Colorado Boulder’s aerosol laboratory in partnership with several arts organizations. Results from that study have determined the extent of droplet spreading from such activities as projected speaking, singing, etc. Appropriate advice and information will be placed on the “Contests” page for each activity WHSFA sponsors: by October 1 for Theatre and Debate, and by November 1 for Speech and Middle Level, and by December 1 for Film.

Online Contests

According to a UW-Madison study, depression and anxiety were at alarming rates among student athletes this spring.

Forensic middle and high school activities of Debate, One-Act Theatre, Speech, and Film are academic, performing arts sports, and often serve students who are not athletes, and/or find themselves socially marginalized. These essential activities build confidence in young people, preparing them for college and career readiness. According to Dr. Karissa Niehoff of the NFHS, “These activities – the other half of education – are vital to the mental and emotional wellness of student participants.”

For the 2020-21 school year, WHSFA is offering its contest series in all activities in an entirely online format, allowing students to participate in safe, secure online platforms that have been tested on a national level. [See screen capture of a round of Speech at the National Speech & Debate Association National Tournament, June 2020; NSDA photo].

Download the fact sheet flyer
Theatre season slide deck
Speech/Middle Level season slide deck

Avoiding In-Person Contests

WHSFA made the determination to take all our programming online this year. That decision was predicated on the following:
  • It gives administrators no excuse to cancel a school’s participation other than that they’re doing it, uniformly, for all extracurriculars. For schools that are meeting only virtually, it prevents an inequitable difference with those schools meeting in person (where students could still participate in virtual interscholastic contests). We have communicated to every superintendent in the state our plan to hold all Speech, Debate, and Theatre contests virtually, so they would be aware of that when making decisions to allow some extracurricular activities or not.
  • WHSFA is Wisconsin’s official organization of record with NFHS for interscholastic speech, debate, and theatre activities (as WIAA is for athletics and WSMA is for music). As such, we have been participating in regular meetings with public health experts and state performing arts activity associations, reviewing research relative to dangers of aerosol spreading, the imperative of mask wearing at all times when in the same room as others, and how we have a moral imperative to conduct our activities as safely as possible. Projection of droplets, unmasked in the front of a room, presents a significant risk to anyone sitting in the room, even more than 6 feet away. Exhalation of aerosols (that are smaller than droplets) by a group of a half-dozen people will fill a standard-sized classroom in 30 minutes. Therefore, as part of this NFHS cohort, WHSFA joins several other state performing arts organizations in holding online contests.
  • The Wisconsin Department of Health Services and Department of Public Instruction were highly cautious about holding in-person contests, and the ability to sanitize each room in-between rounds, as well as constant movement in order to achieve the “scrambling” of entries we need to hold a fair contest. However, due to disempowerment of DHS by state supreme court ruling, they offer limited advice to statewide organizations, so we are left to county-by-county health departments, many of which are hesitant themselves to offer public health advice, given how political this pandemic has become. In short, we have a dysfunctional system where we not able to rely on professionals with background and training, due to the controversial landscape.
  • In meetings with DHS and DPI, discussions of health and youth privacy laws as well as equity also were had. When dealing with minors, there are a number of laws regarding sharing of information for contact tracing. Plus, in decentralized situations, we must rely on the efficacy of individual contest hosts/managers to follow-through on contacting individuals associated with their contests – hosts for many of whom are already overworked and overwhelmed with new teaching responsibilities in this COVID-19 reality in which we are all working within.
  • Liability insurance experts highly recommend not holding contests administered as part of a state qualification series (i.e., level 1, level 2, subdistrict, district, and sectional contests are administered under state office oversight). WHSFA has no jurisdiction, and therefore, no liability associated with invitational contests, though we highly discourage them from happening in-person.
  • WHSFA was disinvited from all universities we partner with to host contests, including our State contests, so working backward from that, where there would be no possibility of planning ahead for a large-scale contest mingling students from different geographic locales around the state, we wanted advisors (coaches/directors) as prepared as possible to coach their students for the highest degree of success for what would be a virtual State contest.
  • School administrators we consulted were concerned enough with sanitizing their buildings with their own community’s students present, much less inviting outsiders from a wide geographic area, which could have potential to make that event a “hot spot.” The key difference between forensic activities and athletics is the usage of standard classrooms where instruction would need to happen during the school day; there is inample time to sanitize in time for evening/weekend contests, as well as during contests.

WHSFA is a proud member association (along with WIAA and WSMA) of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which sets standards and best practices for interscholastic contests.

Partner Universities


WISDAA suggests consulting recommendations of public health authorities, such as the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), Wisconsin Department of Health, and Harvard Medical School.

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