"We Aren't Typical Seniors": Mullen Students Reflect on a COVID-19 Spring

Dec. 30, 2020, 6:45 a.m. ·

Jared Finney poses for pictures after receiving his diploma during Mullen's COVID-19 influenced graduation ceremony (Mullen Public Schools image)

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Life changed drastically for Nebraska students when COVID-19 closed schools in March. The stories of seniors from a Sandhills school district that’s small in numbers but large in size are featured in today’s NET News Signature Story. It’s part of the NET Radio and "What If..." radio documentary, “Remote Learning in Remote Nebraska.”

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 CT (5:30 pm MT) on NET Radio. Or listen to the documentary any time and see photos that help tell the story at netNebraska.org/remotelearning.

“Class of 2020: Moving Forward” is a new NET program bringing together mental health professionals and students to reflect on the impact of changes to the school year and discuss how to successfully cope with disruptions and future challenges. It premieres Thursday, May 28 at 8 p.m. CT on NET Television.

A very windy Mullen High School graduation day was another reminder that things are much different in a COVID-19 world.

Wearing light gray caps and gowns, 14 seniors from this remote Sandhills school walked one-by-one, for the last time, through the school’s main hallway. Then graduate names were read as they walked out the door. Superintendent Chris Kuncl handed each student a diploma. Then a few steps to pose alone for pictures on a two-step riser. Only immediate family were invited, separated in designated areas of a parking lot. Kuncl described it as "some resemblance of a graduation."

The school is hoping to hold a bigger ceremony in July. For now, they did doing something on the Saturday that graduation was originally scheduled and made the best of the situation. But like the rest of the spring, Kuncl said lots of things are missing for these seniors.

“They're losing so much over this," Kuncl said. "They lost the whole season of sports. They're losing their awards banquets. They're losing their last nine weeks as a high school student walking the halls. All of a sudden, that was just ripped from them. I did send a pretty emotional letter to them because my heart goes out to them. I feel bad for them."

"It's just one of those things where it's definitely one for the history books," Kuncl said.

Here are thoughts from three of the Mullen graduates, and one teacher who is also Mullen's guidance counselor.

Madison Jones

"Human interaction is what I miss most," said Madison Jones, Mullen's salutatorian. "I don't realize how many people I interact within a day and now it's basically just my family and no friends, unless it's over social media."

(Mullen Public Schools image)

"When they made it so nobody could go to boys state basketball besides family (in March), that's when everyone kind of realized, 'Ooh, this is serious.' At the time you just didn't realize how serious it was and everything was being canceled, until two weeks later when we still weren't going back to school. We just thought it would be a momentary thing and they'd fix it."

Jones, as is typical at Mullen, was a busy student involved in sports and lots of other activities. She struggled with the change of pace when her family’s kitchen table became her classroom. "I'm kind of going crazy," she said, talking before their last day of school. "I'm pretty laid back and I like to procrastinate and do stuff later. So I always just felt pretty chill with school even though I was so busy. But now that I realize I'm not doing stuff all the time, it's hard to stay disciplined. You try so hard, but then when you get all your homework done and you're just in here, it's terrible. Where I don't have something to occupy me all day, it's really hard."

Jones plans to attend the University of Nebraska-Lincoln next fall, and major in secondary education.

Riley Kessler

How did Riley Kessler spend part of his last day of high school? Branding cattle with friends. “You're out in the middle of somebody's pasture doing work and you're like, ‘hey, it's my last day.’”

(Mullen Public Schools image)

Kessler lives on a ranch that's a 45 minute drive from school. For a couple weeks, he and his brother had to drive 10 miles to the top of a hill to get cell service to do online homework. The normal isolation he deals with was exaggerated when school buildings closed. "I like interacting with people as it is, and not being able to do that is a hard adjustment as it is for a lot of people," he said. "Isolation has always been a thing just living on a ranch, but it's a little bit harder when you're being forced to do it."

“I miss just being in the school, seeing the teachers, and being able to have their help when I needed it or anything like that," he added. "And definitely seeing my friends. Not having our prom was definitely not very much fun.”

Kessler starts Nebraska Army National Guard basic training in August, and hopes to start college classes and/or return to the ranch.

Molly Paxton

"We're in the middle of nowhere. Nothing ever happens to us," Molly Paxton remembers thinking in March, shortly before the start of track season. Paxton won the Class D two-mile and was second in the mile at last year's state track meet, and "worked harder than ever" for a senior season that never happened.

(Mullen Public Schools image)

"It was super hard to get to March and preparing for my first week of practice, and then everything just being taken away without any chance at all," she said. "The hardest part is having to say goodbye before I could even say hello."

"I'm just super thankful for that we are raised in such a tight knit community where everyone is able to help each other adapt," Paxton added. "Nobody asked for this, but we've done a very, very good job with what we've had. It's been a roller coaster, but it's also been pretty successful, so I'm grateful for that."

Paxton, Mullen's valedictorian, plans to start classes at UNL next fall, studying biological sciences with an eye on medical school.

Megan Andersen

Megan Andersen says she walking three to five miles daily when school closed, and shared pictures like this with her students to encourage them to get outside and "let them know it was for my mental health and I wanted them to protect theirs as well." (Megan Andersen photo)

After two months without face-to-face contact with students, Mullen guidance counselor and teacher Megan Andersen said she and colleagues are "kind of zoomed out."

"But I'm really glad that we had the ability to be able to quote unquote 'see each other,'" she added.

Based on something from the book "180 Days," she gave her sixth, 10th and 11th grade English students this assignment. "They have to journal three times a week about how this whole entire school closure, COVID and everything has affected their lives. My goal is in 40 years, when somebody asks them about the COVID epidemic, some of them will be able to pull out their journal that they've been doing this year."

“I read a lot of their stuff every day, it helps me gauge where the kids are with their mental health and their frustration and stuff,” said Andersen, in her 19th year of teaching. “They're all struggling and the biggest thing that they're struggling with is the normalcy. I think they all miss their friends a lot. That's definitely a theme that goes through all of their journals.”

"The sixth graders, I mean they miss their friends, but a lot of them really just talked about what they missed, whereas the high school kids took me through their day and their frustrations and their hopes for the future," she said.

"I feel especially with this senior group, we've kind of been robbed of a semester, or quarter of being able to build those relationships with our students in a face to face way instead of a digital way.”

Editor's Note: This story is part of our "Best of 2020" Signature Story report. The story originally aired and was published in May 2020.


NET 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 americaamplified.org and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.