Remote Learning in the Sandhills During a Pandemic

May 14, 2020, 5:45 a.m. ·

Mullen Public Schools classrooms have been empty since the move to remote learning in March. (Chris Kuncl photo)

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Nebraska schools had to find a new way of teaching and learning this spring with the onset of COVID-19. A new NET Radio documentary, “Remote Learning in Remote Nebraska,” follows the Mullen Public Schools’ journey into this uncharted territory.

This story is from "Remote Learning in Remote Nebraska," a new NET Radio documentary that's also part of the NET "What If..." project on innovation and creativity.

Listen to "Remote Learning in Remote Nebraska" Thursday, May 28 at 6:30 pm, 5:30 pm MT on NET Radio. You can also listen to the documentary and see photos that help tell the story at

Mullen Public Schools superintendent Chris Kuncl. (Mullen Schools photo)

Mullen teacher Melody McDowell meets with a fourth-grade student on Zoom. (Melody McDowell photo)

Sarah Hardin uses Zoom to conduct a virtual experiment with high school chemistry students. (Sarah Hardin image)

“It is really weird walking around here,” Chris Kuncl said. He is superintendent of the Mullen Public Schools, and he is talking about walking down the main hallway of their single-story building for grades 6 through 12. Full trophy cases and tall blue lockers line the walls in between classroom doors. But you don’t hear any school sounds. You don’t hear much of anything. “Kids are supposed to be running through the halls.”

It’s been that way for this Sandhills school since mid-March when COVID-19 forced Mullen and other Nebraska schools to lock their doors and find new ways to teach. A message to students called it “taking a break from being in the building but not taking a break from education.”

Kuncl said the 157-student district had a couple of good starting points. First, every student was already assigned a Chromebook through a school and grant-funded program. Second, some Mullen teachers were already trained and using a “blended education” model of teaching and learning that involves more use of online interaction and materials. “The one consistent thing was we're prepared for this,” Kuncl said.

The question became graded work or ungraded enrichment activities for the rest of the school year? Kuncl said the choice was unanimous among his staff. Enrichment for K through 5 and graded work for older students.

“I think that's where our whole entire staff felt was if we don't push them, what are we going to get out of this?” Kuncl said. “We'll just feel like we're just going through the motions too. We had some pushback from a few families about grading and whatnot, and the one thing we stayed constant of, we do not want this to be a hindrance on any student's GPA. As long as they're going to give us some effort, we're going to make sure that they get credit for this stuff. But we're also going to have high expectations for them because that's who we are as a staff, and we want our kids to meet those expectations.”

“I think that my kids are glad that they're doing grading, it's holding them more accountable,” said Barb Svoboda, a Mullen parent and school board member, and a Nebraska Association of School Boards regional director. “I feel like they're going to be pretty on track, and I think that choosing grading really helped with that.”

A survey of Nebraska school administrators found only 18 percent maintaining the regular grading system through the spring semester, what Mullen is doing for grades 6 through 12. Kuncl said they’ve seen about 90 percent of students with grades as good or better than in the quarter before remote learning.

Mullen’s three dozen teachers didn’t have much time to figure out new ways to teach. Melody McDowell has individual Zoom sessions with third and fourth-grade students once a week and Google Hangout meetings with her full class twice a week. They're all done from her dining room table.

“I think our main goal was to keep those kids sharpening those skills that they have up to the point that school was called off. We did not want them to go backwards,” McDowell said. “I think expecting a kindergarten, first, second, third, fourth, even a fifth grader to learn new concepts without the teacher there was pretty difficult. Even though we're not, per se, grading those students' assignments, I do give feedback to all the kids on their assignments.”

High school science teacher Sarah Hardin used Zoom to have all of her students doing the same experiment at the same time.

“Every day I strive to get kids out of their desks, doing science and doing hands-on projects. So this was a complete flip for me, and it's a struggle,” Hardin said. “I've spent a lot of time digging and digging, trying to find at-home versions of things that are safe and fun, and still apply to whatever content we're learning at the time.”

Mullen is a huge school district. In square miles, “bigger than the state of Rhode Island,” Kuncl said. It's a remote part of the state where education requiring connectivity is a problem for some families.

Senior Riley Kessler lives on a ranch 45 minutes from school. Here’s what Kessler and his eighth-grade brother had to do for a couple of weeks until their home wifi improved. “There's this big hill 10 miles from our house and me and my little brother were driving there every day. And we had a hotspot on a tablet that we were using our Chromebooks on. And so, we'd spend three hours up there doing homework, doing Zoom calls and all that,” he said.

There are lots of virtual meetings and other online tools and lots of emails and texts back and forth at all hours between students and teachers. In some cases, assignments mailed back and forth or materials dropped off at houses. It’s remote education with a heavy dose of problem solving, forced by COVID-19. And with all involved missing face-to-face contact.

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

“I think one of the biggest things that I have found is, even with a live Zoom session, without that interaction throughout the day with those students, and just being able to read, this sounds really funny, but body language of a kid,” Hardin said. “So are they frustrated? Are they stressed out? Do they have questions? You're not seeing them in school.”

“This is so unprecedented, and everybody's kind of writing the book as we go,” Kuncl said. “Overall I think we handled that as best we could. I think the staff here in Mullen and the administration and everybody in the community, I think we're all doing what we feel is best for our kids.”

Doing something educators in Mullen, and likely throughout Nebraska, hope they won’t be doing next fall.


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