WESTPORT — Despite the COVID-19-related restrictions that hampered how they were able to compete, students from Staples High School still stepped up and into a unique virtual playing field to achieve great things.

The “We The People” team — comprised of 23 A.P. Government students with a passion for the U.S. Constitution — not only took the state title for the first time in December, but finished fifth overall in the national competition that was run through the nonprofit Center for Civic Education.

While they were denied a trip down to Washington, D.C., last month to take part in the national finals and spend several days touring the city, Staples students still chose to dig into the challenge of competing online, with two of their six group unit sections even finishing second in their categories.

“We had expectations for the whole travel experience, and getting to see all those sites, but honestly I think it brought our team closer together,” said Sammy Webster, 16, a junior, whose focus was on the philosophical underpinnings of the Constitution.

“It was supposed to be the weekend of April 24 to 26,” explained social studies teacher Suzanne Kammerman, who has led her students in participation for the past six years. “The students were supposed to be traveling down there to D.C. (with) 56 teams from across the country.”

“They were obviously really disappointed to miss out on the trip,” she said, but despite having a choice to opt out of the online competition, Kammerman’s students unanimously chose to throw themselves into the work.

“I didn’t want to burden them given the circumstances (but) they actually jumped at it,” she said. “They wanted to see it to the end.”

“I don’t think that the ranking was what we were chasing when we signed up for the class,” student Rachel Suggs, 17, a junior, said, “but it’s not bad to have either. It definitely feels good.”

Instead, however, she said the competition was a good motivation for learning the content, as well as inspiring a great sense of camaraderie among the participants.

“It was a great opportunity for them to be working with each other, to collaborate,” Kammerman said.

Lauren Francese, district social studies coordinator, said participation in Kammerman’s class comes through teacher recommendation.

“Year after year, I’m inspired by the students’ passion for learning about civics, deep commitment to the competition, and collaboration,” she said.

“It’s exciting to see the team have success at the national level,” she said, “and that has been accomplished through Mrs. Kammerman’s dedication to her students and commitment to exceptional civics instruction.”

“It really just opened me to new perspective,” Sammy said of the experience, “and it taught me a lot about my role as a citizen in this country. That was my biggest takeaway.”

“I feel like history’s like a living thing,” Rachel said. “The law’s a living document.”

The program is designed as a simulated congressional hearing, she explained, with various Constitution-related prompts addressed with prepared statements and through impromptu questions and answers.

“We have to respond with evidence and examples,” she said. “And then there’s rubrics and categories that they score us on.”

“For me this is my passion,” Kammerman said, “studying government and politics, but I think for students one of the greatest things about this competition is it really asks students to dive into these topics related to the Constitution in a way that they wouldn’t do ordinarily.”

“I think that it is so important because they become educated citizens,” she said, noting that it’s in amicable learning environment where all opposing views are honored and accepted.

At the same time, she said, regardless of what position they take, students are taught to back up their beliefs with facts and evidence.

“There is never a moment when it isn’t completely respectful and that civil dialogue is so important in today’s society,” Kammerman said, noting the We the People program supports that ideal.

“We The People is a rigorous competition organized around knowledge of the U.S. Constitution,” Superintendent of Schools David Abbey said, noting the immensity of the students’ work and their success.

“It is quite an achievement,” he said.