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The Scripps National Spelling Bee will return this year in a mostly virtual format, with the in-person competition limited to a dozen finalists who will gather on an ESPN campus at Walt Disney World in Florida, Scripps announced Monday.

Last year's bee was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, the first time since World War II it had been called off. Organizers said they did not believe a large gathering at the bee's longtime venue — a convention center outside Washington — would be possible this year for the competition's usual date around Memorial Day.

Instead of compressing the entire competition into a week — spellers routinely refer to Bee Week as a highlight of their young lives — the bee will be stretched over several weeks. The preliminary rounds will be held in mid-June, the semifinals on June 27 and the ESPN-televised finals on July 8.

"We gave up on the idea of Bee Week early on because we knew we couldn't bring hundreds of people to one location safely," Carolyn Micheli, the bee's interim executive director, told The Associated Press ahead of the announcement.

"We came up with what I think is a pretty exciting and creative way of structuring the competition across several weeks that will be fun for the kids, build excitement, and I think it's a great way to cope with a difficult situation," she added.

The cancellation of last year's bee was a cruel blow to eighth-graders who missed out on their final chance to compete after years of preparation. Top spellers routinely study obscure words, roots and language patterns for hours a day, sacrificing other activities and social life for a chance to become the national champion.

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