MEA member Jacob Oaster is a mid-career vocal music teacher who knows how to manage a teaching load of 150 sixth through twelfth graders split into five different choirs, but 2020 has taken him back to a less certain time in his career.
“I’ve worked harder this year than I ever have,” Oaster said. “It doesn’t feel like my 16th year of teaching. Every day I’m a first year teacher all over again, who’s had to learn everything from scratch.”
“Innovation” has been the name of the game for Oaster in two roles he plays in Allegan County’s Hopkins Public Schools—both as choir teacher and union president.
As a local association leader, Oaster helped to work out the district’s hybrid plan with A-B cohorts of students in face-to-face learning alternating two days per week, with remote Wednesdays for all, and a fully virtual option staffed by Hopkins teachers at the secondary level.
The plan has meant he never sees more than 20 students at once in his in-person classes, which allows for physical distancing, which then permits him to conduct “short stints of singing” with masked students in a large, well-ventilated choir room.
To improve indoor air flow, Oaster got help from the district’s maintenance crew to build stands for box fans to reach windows and connect them to one power switch. He also sought donations of tall buckets that could be easily sanitized and used for student outdoor seating on nice days.
Because secondary-level teachers must teach both in-person and virtual students (asynchronously), as union president he pushed for in-house educators to be allowed to lead a nuts-and-bolts professional development day on how to use technology for remote teaching.
The Zoom training was led by a union colleague with staff in their classrooms testing strategies and Oaster roaming around to help on topics ranging from using a document camera with a recording device, publishing to Google Classroom, and troubleshooting microphone issues.
“We had teachers from age 22 to 65 learning how to do stuff for the very first time, and it was offered by our union,” Oaster said. “All but three said they had learned something immensely different than what they knew, and they were able to progress and feel some confidence.”
Along with MEA UniServ Director Christine Anderson, Oaster also negotiated an “outside the box” accommodation through the Americans with Disabilities Act for a member math teacher whose serious health condition makes him susceptible to the worst effects of COVID-19.
In that case, the teacher was able to work from home and teach via live video feed, with the students in the classroom being monitored by a substitute teacher. “I believe he’s happy to have been granted this unique opportunity and to feel so supported by his union,” Oaster said.
“It’s a crazy different world, but we’re trying our absolute best as a union and as a staff to really make safety our number-one priority for everyone involved.”
Read more stories from the series, “What it’s Like: COVID Vignettes”: