SENIORS EXPECT A NEW LANDSCAPE OF CHALLENGES, CHANGE – Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence
Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence



Glimmers of a return to normal school operations after a year of remote learning are bringing relief across the state. A wave of vaccines offer an end of difficult days. For high school seniors, however, the welcome landscape of progress in the battle with the coronavirus pandemic does not diminish their new mindset of bracing for change and adaptation.

Over the past year, the Class of 2021 experienced stinging sacrifices, potentially life-changing insights and a range of hardships and new options they describe as certain to shape their entry into the adult world.

As spring arrived, five-day-a-week learning returned at places like Russellville High School. Senior Chaun Cheaney will complete his online school work completely from home. Track team practice and events offer a final reconnection with school norms. Navigating the future, he said, will continue to be a challenge.

“I feel that education will become more and more digital as time passes, and remote learning has taught students how to navigate online classes for future academic situations. On the other hand, from my perspective, it is harder to learn online than in person, so I had a hard time obtaining and retaining information this school year,” Cheaney explained. “I plan to go to college after high school, and I feel like I could have learned a lot more if we were in person. If college goes back to normal in the fall, I believe I’ll have to catch up.”

Ben Bruni, the Russellville High principal, said that this year’s high school seniors endured a jolting transition to an unpredictable world.

“We are going to see a very unique student come out of all this — adept and malleable when it comes to handling adversity; adaptable to systems,” he said. This year’s seniors have also experienced social struggles with isolation and facing a major life transition without many of the usual supports.

“They know that in life, we have to face realities of hard truths,” Bruni said.

Russellville High was one of 15 high schools across Kentucky identified last year in research by the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky for producing student outcomes that exceeded expectations based on the school’s demographics. In math, reading, and composite scores, Russellville High, a school of 300, stood out for scores on the ACT college-entrance exam.

RUSSELLVILLE HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR CHAUN CHEANEY is back working with the track team after last season was cancelled. He looks forward to an in-person college experience after a year of remote learning and a largely online college search.

Principals at other Kentucky high schools identified as “public school bright spots” agreed that the pandemic has constrained resources at a critical time for many students and families.

Sandy Holbrook, the principal at Elliott County High School — noted for its in-state college-going rate in the UK research — said that the lack of in-person meetings and college visits and reduced social interactions have been a big challenge for seniors.

“We have used social media, automated calling, virtual platforms with Google Classroom and Google Meets to prepare our students for future endeavors,” she said. Those efforts had to replace in-person meetings to discuss future college plans, the application process and scholarships at the 300-student school.

For seniors like those in Elliott County who have applied and been accepted to colleges and universities and already notified about athletic and academic scholarships, it was not just high school supports that changed. At many colleges, access to admissions offices and information was hard to find and answering questions took persistence and navigation skills.

Atherton High School in Louisville — recognized in the UK report for its ACT results — usually connects its students with college recruiters visiting the city. This school year, face-to-face visits were replaced by video conferences. For many students, those sessions came after a day of online classes for school, said Thomas Aberli, principal of the 1,400-student school.


Statewide, concerns have mounted about the toll of the pandemic on students’ plans beyond high school. In February, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education reported a significant drop in college enrollment, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. The trend calls for attention from leaders in the postsecondary and K-12 system to avoid declines in economic and education outcomes, CPE said.

Fall undergraduate enrollment at four-year public universities slipped 2 percent between 2019 and 2020, reflecting a 7.3 percent decline from 2015. The one-year drop in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System was over 10 percent. Prior to the pandemic, the in-state college-going rate among new high school graduates had fallen from 54 percent in 2015 to 50.5 percent in 2019.

“Our progress as a state depends greatly on our success and recovery at the campus level,” said CPE President Aaron Thompson in response to a resolution calling for action that the council adopted at its February meeting.

We are going to see a very unique student come out of all this — adept and malleable when it comes to handling adversity; adaptable to systems.

— Russellville High Principal Ben Bruni

The pandemic disrupted college enrollments in almost every state. Total fall 2020 undergraduate enrollment, including all sectors, dropped 4.4 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Kentucky officials said it was too early to know the state’s trend in college admissions applications for fall 2021.

School leaders have worked to pull together assistance for students.

Aberli, the Atherton principal, said that proactive, creative counselors offered help on student-aid forms and admissions issues, but the pandemic shook up the school year in many ways, with seniors experiencing the biggest upheaval. He said more students took on jobs, with work time taking up a larger percentage of students’ days that usual. More juniors planned for early graduation. Many more Class of 2021 seniors sought to use the option for a December graduation.

Aberli said that while the number of seniors struggling academically has increased, about 90 percent are on track to continue the postsecondary path they had envisioned before the pandemic. “But they are experiencing it in a different way,” he said.

“I had to become more self-reliant on projects and have gotten better at conducting more research as well,” said Ajsia Redden, an Atherton senior interested in a career in graphic design. Extra time to consider future options during the pandemic pushed her to explore a wider range of schools, leading her to choose a college in Indiana. “There was a sudden urge to branch out,” she said.

Remote learning has created challenges when it comes to managing mental health, she said.

“Covid regulations heavily restricted the socialization I had with not only my friends but my family as well,” Redden said. “It saddens me to know that I will never have the proper senior experience other people wish they could go back to.”

Redden moved frequently in her elementary and middle school years. The landmarks capping four years of high school were something she had highly anticipated. “I am proud to say that for the first time ever I had spent four years within the same school and had made so many great memories here,” Redden said.

I had to become more self-reliant on projects and have gotten better at conducting more research.

— Atherton High senior Ajsia Redden

George Sackie, another Atherton senior, said that remote learning led him to evaluate what he wants to get out of his education experience.

“It’s actually increased my desire to be in a classroom,” said Sackie, an aspiring computer science major. “I think the social climate created by a school setting helps to foster growth as an individual. With college on the horizon, face-to-face encounters seem even more important.”

Sackie said that he spent extra time puzzling over college options and applied to more places than he had imagined. He is still awaiting options and a final decision.

Sackie sees some positive outcomes from the trying circumstances. “I think the pandemic has improved my chances of success in future endeavors. It has taught me to be versatile and adapt to unfamiliar realities. The ability to network, especially in a virtual setting, is a skill I would’ve otherwise not gained had it not been for the pandemic.”

Restrictions in 2020 dashed his senior wrestling season, which Sackie expected to be his most successful. This year, wrestling resumed while the virus was still spreading. Sackie decided conditions were not safe enough to return and sat out. Service projects and volunteering that he had expected for his senior year were also impossible.

In class, he continued Atherton’s Advanced Placement Computer Science course online. That work, Sackie said, “has truly confirmed my love for the field.”


Russellville Principal Bruni said that students, teachers, and families have responded positively to school leaders’ efforts to promote positive momentum and create opportunities despite formidable limits.

Bruni said that the past year has required educators to develop new sensitivities to students’ and parents’ needs for help and communication. Technology — and students’ ability to utilize it — has been a major force in making sure that plans and programs moved forward amid restrictions.

“Students are incredibly flexible,” Bruni said. “This generation’s ability with social media and technology makes them so knowledgeable and ahead of the curve.”

Karlee Elrod, a senior at Russellville, said she sees online learning in a new light.

“This past year of remote learning has altered the way I defined a classroom,” she said. “Before the pandemic, I wouldn’t have ever considered taking more online classes after the dual enrollment one I completed during high school. However, after mostly adjusting to online learning, I can see it being a valid option for some courses.”

RUSSELLVILLE HIGH SCHOOL SENIOR KARLEE ELROD said that while learning remotely was a challenge, it also built new strengths as a student that will help in college.

The pandemic cost Elrod her senior season in marching band. It dashed the school musical and dramatically cut short the 2020 Governor’s Scholars Program she was selected to attend. It complicated her college exploration, but she is optimistic about the future.

“My family and I took the pandemic very seriously, and we still wound up getting the coronavirus in December. On top of being frustrated by being stuck at home, it was difficult for us to sit down and have a conversation about the next steps in my path because of all the uncertainty surrounding us,” Elrod said.

“I did feel like it was a lot harder to learn outside of the classroom, and I struggled to reach out for help with what I didn’t know. At home, it is easy to get distracted. I would say that despite all of the things the pandemic caused me to miss out on, I am now a more adaptable person. I hope this will be a useful skill as I move forward.”

Many students said they have worked to remain upbeat.

“Staying positive is honestly the only way for me,” added Katresha Hickman, a senior at Atherton in Louisville. In addition to online school challenges, she missed out on practice and performance with the high school step team, which had been a favorite activity.

“I’ve learned to stay open minded in certain situations dealing with school and without,” said Hickman, who plans to focus on biology in college. “I mean, I’m doing all of this work in my comfort zone and it’s actually quite hard to do when you do your own thing at home. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I don’t think my mind would have opened to many options and opportunities that it’s had.”

Chaun Cheaney of Russellville said seniors recognize the pandemic and remote learning as a defining experience. The circumstances have not only shaped his learning but his plans beyond high school.

“Before the shutdown, I didn’t really have a clear direction on what I wanted to do after high school. Although the shutdown didn’t necessarily change any of my plans, it did inspire me to become a healthcare professional after seeing all the help that was needed during the peak of the pandemic,” Cheaney said. “Being at home during the shutdown, the seniors at my high school didn’t have a lot of guidance in regard to applying for colleges and scholarships, so in that sense we had to figure things out on our own.”

The experience led to a new view of learning. “Since the pandemic has negatively affected my friends mentally in different ways, I noticed that it has become difficult for all of us to find the motivation to complete school work,” he said. “A lot of us need an academic environment and socialization to stay motivated and focused.”

A member of the track team since seventh grade, Cheaney hated seeing his junior track season cancelled last spring. “I feel like I lost a lot of valuable and unforgettable experiences that I unfortunately won’t be able to get back,” he said.

This year, he opted not to play basketball after he an his family decided it wasn’t worth the risk during the pandemic.

Cheaney, like thousands of other Kentucky seniors facing decisions about options beyond high school, feels well versed in the job of navigating a new frontier. He said he knows there will be ground to make up, but he can also use a year’s worth of experience to get through adversity.

There’s no one answer to what the past year will mean, he said. “Remote learning will make it easier and harder at the same time.”


TOP PHOTO: RUSSELLVILLE HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER TANYA MULLEN works with students during a dual-credit biology class in March.

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