Despite the pandemic, it’s important for Rio Rancho Public Schools to keep that long-time tradition of a spelling be alive, says Kim Vesely, an eighth-grade spelling bee champion when she was a youngster in Cloudcroft.
Thus, the 27th annual bee, begun here in 1995, had to be tweaked quite a bit. Two non-RRPS schools in the county, Sandoval Academy of Bilingual Education in northern Rio Rancho and one from Santo Domingo Pueblo — requested to be taken in under the RRPS wing, she said.
Vesely, the special projects and district analyst for RRPS, and, as usual, the district bee coordinator, said this year’s event will happen online through a written test platform from the National Spelling Bee.
“It’s a way to keep the traditional bee alive in Rio Rancho,” Vesely said. “We have a long and proud tradition — it goes over a quarter of a century. (But) like so many things in the pandemic, we’ve had to do it differently.
“It’s been more (work) — a lot more. It’s been a learning experience and a work in progress at all levels — district, state and national. We’re trying to make it as similar as we can.”
Parents were required to register their student on the platform to pave the way for participation.
“We had around 140 students district-wide signed up from our 16 eligible schools, with 34 advancing from school bees in December to the district level,” she said.
Last week, the field was whittled down further, with the finals coming up the last week of this month. The top three winners from the Rio Rancho competition will advance to the state bee.
All of the district and state competitions in New Mexico will be conducted online.
“We would much prefer the traditional, in-person format,” Vesely said, “but there was really no way to do it while meeting the state’s public-health guidelines, and without requiring virtual-only students to come into a school in-person to compete.
“Conducting the bee online provides a level playing field for all students, whether virtual or attending in-person classes, and allows them the opportunity to participate without their parents having to be concerned about potential exposure to others in this age of COVID.”
It may be easier to cheat, but Vesely said participants had to take an integrity pledge, which, she explained, “essentially says, ‘I will not have anybody else help me on this test.’”
Competitors will get a 20-word test and have 30 minutes to complete it. They hear the word on their computer, and the screen includes the usual “sidebars”: definition, country of origin, etc.
After spelling out each word, the student hits “enter” to get the next one. Changes may be made before the student submits the list of spelled words, Vesely said, which accounts for another difference in this virtual world.
In live bees, if a contestant starts spelling a word, then realizes he/she started it wrong and went back, he/she had to repeat it the same way. There was no hitting “enter” to sidestep possible miscues.
Although parental protests are common at live bees, Vesely said only one protest — and it was valid — occurred during the school online bees.
“(Their) student had capitalized all the words and program said a couple were wrong,” she said.
A protest to the national board revealed the word was correct, and that “helped correct a glitch in the program they needed to fix.”
Earlier this month, Vesely said she was busy “in the process of putting together the rules for the way it’s run — a little bit different. This week, we’ll have a preliminary round first and reduce the field (for the finals).
“The district test is tougher, I can tell you,” she said. “Four thousand words for study at district level expand minds and stretch their vocabulary.”
The Scripps National Spelling Bee began in 1925 and this year’s, if held, will be the 93rd. The contest was not held from 1943-45 because of World War II.
Although no Rio Rancho speller has gotten that far, former RRPS Finance Director Randy Evans’s son, Matthew, competed at the national bee several times.

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Gary Herron | Observer staff writer