Remote Learning in Remote Nebraska

Remote Learning in Remote Nebraska

“In a matter of a few days, I had to completely kind of flip the way that I teach,” says Mullen Public Schools science teacher Sarah Hardin. “I think we’re in uncharted territory.”

“Remote Learning in Remote Nebraska,” tells the story of one school district’s transition to remote learning because of COVID-19. This new 30 minute Nebraska Public Media Radio documentary is part of the Nebraska Public Media What If... project on innovation and creativity in Nebraska.

The program focuses on how educators quickly came up with a remote learning plan, including deciding whether or not to grade work; creative and innovative ways teachers and parents engaged students; what it's like to be a graduating senior; and challenges, including limited WiFi, creating learning spaces at home and the lack of face-to-face connection.

“Even though you get to see them and you talk to them, it's different than being face to face," says Mullen Elementary School teacher Melody McDowell. "There is a lot to communication that's not just words over a camera. You can tell how kid’s day is going when they walk in your classroom in the morning and you can't see that on a computer screen.”

"There are stories like this in school districts throughout Nebraska," says Nebraska Public Media producer Mike Tobias. "In many ways, Mullen’s story is also their story."

The program also provides a glimpse into life in the remote Sandhills region of Nebraska. The Mullen Public Schools district has 157 students in grades K-12. “Mullen is a huge district,” says Mullen superintendent Chris Kuncl. “We're bigger than the state of Rhode Island in our square mileage."

School Hallway

“It is really weird walking around here. We're in April, and kids are supposed to be running through the halls," says Chris Kuncl, Mullen Public Schools superintendent. (Chris Kuncl photo)

Teachers holding up sings of hope

Mullen High School teachers created this message for their students. English teacher Megan Andersen had her students keep journals about life during the COVID-19 shutdown. "They're all struggling and the biggest thing that they're struggling with is the normalcy," says Andersen, who is also Mullen's guidance counselor. "I think they all miss their friends a lot. That's definitely a theme that goes through all of their journals."

New Classrooms

When COVID-19 closed the doors to the Mullen Public Schools, educators, parents and students found new ways to use space at home.

Remote education and life on the Phipps Ranch

Brent and Jordyn Phipps have a family ranch north of Whitman, Nebraska. They have four kids: Kaisley, Kendall, Grady and Emerson. Kaisley and Kendall are Mullen Public Schools students.

Madison, Molly and Riley

Meet Madison Jones, Molly Paxton and Riley Kessler, the three Mullen seniors featured in "Remote Learning in Remote Nebraska."

(images courtesy Mullen Public Schools)

Graduation Day

The Mullen Public Schools held a scaled-down graduation ceremony for 14 seniors on May 9, 2020.

Seniors walked one-by-one, for the last time, through the school’s main hallway. Graduate names were read as they walk out the door. Superintendent Chris Kuncl handed each a diploma. They posed for a quick picture and finished by driving through town so others could stand outside and cheer. "Some resemblance of a graduation," according to Mullen superintendent Chris Kuncl.

Only immediate family were invited, and separated in designated areas of a parking lot.

They hope to do a bigger ceremony for the Class of 2020 in July.

How we made "Remote Learning in Remote Nebraska"

COVID-19 has impacted the way Nebraska Public Media creates content. So we found creative ways to remotely make a radio documentary about remote education.

Nebraska Public Media producer Mike Tobias recorded more than three hours of interviews via telephone from a temporary office in the basement of his home. He captured more than an hour of other sound for the program by having teachers hold phones near computers while they worked, from Facebook videos, from cell phone video and from Zoom recordings. Photos helped Mike have an idea of what he would have normally been seeing and writing about.

Mike wrote a script and turned everything over to Nebraska Public Media audio engineer Werner Althaus, also working from home. Werner edited and mixed the half-hour show.

Would we rather travel west and spend lots of time in the Mullen area to produce a story like this? Definitely. But like most everyone else, COVID-19 also forced us to be innovative to tell a story about innovation!

What If...

"Remote Learning in Remote Nebraska" is part of What If..., the Nebraska Public Media project on innovation and creativity in Nebraska. Watch What If... stories and learn more HERE.

America Amplified

Nebraska Public Media News and our Harvest Public Media partners are reporting as part of the national “America Amplified: Election 2020” project that aims to listen to and amplify the voices of those in diverse communities across the nation. Learn more at and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.