In a normal year, 17-year-old junior Hogan O’Donnell would be standing before a crowd of 500 peers and fans, his eyes fixed on the spectators and judges before him while his opponent’s sweat pools on the gymnasium floor.
This year, the captain of Butte High’s speech and debate team sits in front of a computer in a classroom alone and fights battles of logic over the virtual airwaves.
Even remote competition is a privilege for O’Donnell and his team. It’s taking place only because fellow students and the community have taken the pandemic seriously.
Butte School District No. 1 made in-school instruction a priority throughout the pandemic, for which some members of the community have been critical.
Things didn’t look good mid-November. District-wide, 59 students and 15 staff members tested positive for COVID in a single week, and 359 students had to be quarantined.
District Superintendent Judy Jonart said 18% of the staff was absent at once that week, and substitutes could only be found for a third of them.
The situation has dramatically improved since. The week before last, only five students and one staff member tested positive, and only a single class went remote.
O’Donnell credits the improvement to students, school staff and the community doing the best they can to follow COVID protocols. As a trained debater, he makes sure to qualify his statement.
“For the most part,” he said.
The student debaters face off with opponents from other schools to resolve real world problems. Nobody asks them, “What are the best shows on Netflix right now?”
They instead tackle subjects like lethal autonomous weaponry and prison reform.
The pandemic itself has become a subject of student debate. Recently, O’Donnell and fellow debaters were tasked with resolving the small issue of the country’s economic recovery from the pandemic.
Of course, students discuss the pandemic off the debate stage, too.
“In casual conversations, how it recently came up, was how exactly that vaccine schedule is going to appear, and how long we need to abide by the current regulations for,” O’Donnell said.
That’s what O’Donnell would call the crux of the issue. The vaccination timeline is naturally tied to the need for COVID-safe regulations.
“For the example of limiting business hours and mandating masks, you can definitely see how there's that security versus freedom debate that comes into clash," O'Donnell said.
While the Butte Silver-Bow Health Department and school system stand firmly behind the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s science-based guidelines in forming policy to save lives, the restrictions on businesses are having very real economic effects on people, too.
Student debaters are trained to look at both sides of issues like these.
“I think that one of the beauties of especially high school debate is that you're forced to argue both sides. So you have to take the sort of lens of that opposing view from the opposite side of the aisle,” O’Donnell said. “You get to express viewpoints that you might not necessarily agree with.”
Widening your lens doesn’t mean changing your core beliefs, but it sure makes it easier to get along with people who think differently.
"Definitely I'd say that that ability to look at two opposing viewpoints and understand where they're coming from is critical in political discussion, and seeing this mass increase of radicalization on both sides allows you to sort of take a middle ground in those circumstances. So you don't necessarily align yourself with red or blue, but more of a purple color where you see both sides of an issue. And then from that you draw your own conclusions,” O’Donnell said.
That’s what students of speech and debate practice every day. Along the way, O’Donnell learned lessons for people on both sides of issues to take away.
“A crucial way to sort of see that opposing side is to check as many news sources as you possibly can, and ensuring that there's a good mix between left and right. Then also focusing on that center that's very rarely discussed. So things like AP (the Associated Press), NPR (National Public Radio), those sort of middle ground sources that try to promote the news as unbiased as possible," he said.
O’Donnell said social media especially breeds bias.
“I like to think of a phone as a propaganda device that is four inches long and fits within your pockets, and can spew messages to you at any point in time from any side of the aisle. There's been evidence to show that there's been direct algorithms that only show you the things that you'd like to see, which, of course, only furthers that political divide," O’Donnell said.
The only control most people have over the pandemic is their own behavior. O’Donnell has weighed the perspectives and drawn his conclusion.
Overall, he’s a believer in a mask mandate, social distance, and the other regulations being enforced.
“At the end of the day, as long as you're ensuring that both yourself and the people you interact with on a daily basis are safe, that's going to be the most crucial thing in ensuring that this pandemic ends as soon as possible,” he said.
It can’t end soon enough.
“The toughest part is really the unknown, the insecurity that really has come about from this—the idea that you can get a phone call from the health department any day of the week saying that you're close to someone in the school who tested positive for COVID-19,” he said. “It's really sort of mind boggling to believe.”