Across the country, schools are struggling with staffing shortages aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and larger dynamics in the economy. One district outside St. Louis appears to be the first to use students to fill some of those positions. Northwest School District has hired 20 students to work part-time in childcare, food-service, and custodial jobs. Emily Downs, 15, a sophomore at Northwest High School, is one of them. She’s cleaning offices and classrooms at her old middle school for $10.15 per hour. It’s her first job. She spoke with Education Week about it. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I’m working as a student custodian at Valley Middle School. I started my job last Monday. Currently I’m working five days a week. I get to pick my own hours, whatever works for me. I’m able to take time off when I need to.
I get on the bus after school and I just get off at the middle school. I clock in at about 2:45, and most days I get off work about six o’clock. They’re more flexible with students’ schedules because they know that high school students are involved in a lot. So two days a week I’m able to get off at five. I have church youth group, and some days I also have to come home and watch one of my twin sisters while my mom takes the other one to ballet practice.
I go around [in offices and classrooms] and dust, mop the room, make sure there’s no dirt left on the floor. I empty all the pencil sharpeners, pick up and take out the trash, put new trash bags in. Something we do because of COVID is we fog the room. It’s this disinfectant chemical. I spray it all around the room. I also clean off teachers’ whiteboards. It’s really not bad. Cleaning the bathrooms is the worst part, but even that’s not that bad. I mean, I’ve done it.
I’ve gotten to know several of the custodians [at my high school] and they seem really nice. I just wanted to be able to help out, like keep the schools nice.
I mean, it’s kind of crazy [working at my old school]. It’s a lot different than it was when I left a couple years ago. Most of the teachers are different. One of the principals isn’t there anymore. There’s a lot more murals in the hallways; the art club has painted all over the lockers. It’s really cool.
It’s kind of a mix of feeling like I’m going back in time, and feeling like, holy cow, I’m getting old, because I have a job now. And I’m seeing some teachers that I had in like 6th grade, and I’m seeing them walking around the hallways, but now I’m working! And I see these other students walking around and I’ll say hi to them and it’s like, you’re only a couple years younger than me! That’s crazy. This could still be my school.
I really wasn’t looking for a job. [The job fair] showed up in my email and I thought this could be a really good opportunity. Because it gets me started into seeing what working is like, seeing the work world before I’m 18 and trying to get a larger scale job.
Like recently, the other custodian wasn’t there, and I had to cover her rooms, and those were the days I had to leave early at five o’clock in order to make it home or to church on time. It really taught me how to figure things out, get it all done, quickly and efficiently.
It’s still kind of surreal, almost. But it’s definitely a confidence boost. Just knowing that you’re putting yourself out there and you’re doing something to help out, actually like getting involved in, your community, getting a job.
I notice something different every day. It just makes it cool. That’s part of the fun aspect of it, getting to see all the changes that the students and staff keep making, each day. Just getting to see that can make it enjoyable. Like, there are several paintings in progress on the lockers, and I get to see the little [bits of] progress they’ve made on those [each day.] I see what teachers are doing with their classrooms. I just get to see how everything works from day to day.
It’s crazy that what started out as what a lot of people would view as like the worst year ever just gave me a job.