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With a shortage of staff, students are stepping up to become employees at school

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Online learning, social distancing, masking and isolation have all made being a teenager during this pandemic a trying and often depressing experience.

CARISSA LUNTE: And then moving to the new school in the middle of the pandemic was, I would say, insane because it's so hard to connect with people and make new friends.

SIMON: That's Carissa Lunte talking about her junior year at Northwest High School in Jefferson County, Mo. And this is Savannah Darner, who's now in her junior year there.

SAVANNAH DARNER: As teenagers, we all have slumps. We all don't want to get out of bed or we don't want to go to school that day.

SIMON: Savannah says she struggled with remote learning and with being stuck at home for so long, but then she had a revelation.

DARNER: I realized, why do I want to sleep all the time? Why do I want to be in bed instead of be at school or hang out with my family? It gave me a whole different perspective on things, to not take things for granted, to use what you have.

SIMON: Both Savannah Darner and Carissa Lunte are now back in the classroom full time in new roles. They are part-time employees of the Northwest School District. They're 2 of 11 high school students hired by the district to help fill in gaps from staff shortages. The jobs include cleaning, helping with food prep in the cafeteria and watching young students at an after-school program called Lion Care. That's the job Carissa is doing, along with an adult team leader and another student.

LUNTE: So I want to be a teacher and so when I heard about what Lion Care was, I thought that would be a very interesting way to get, like, acquainted with the district and to get a good experience with students and, like, how would it feel, like, to be a teacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNTE: When we're inside, I enjoy, like, coloring with them and just talking to them. When we're outside, I'll usually hang out on the swings with them or I'll play, like, basketball or four square.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNTE: So I get off around dinnertime, so I'm able to come home and have dinner with my family and then go out and do stuff with my friends after dinner. But, like, when I was working at food service, there'd been times where I'd work a 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, and so like, that was just crazy.

SIMON: For Savannah Darner, the flexible hours are much better than the last job she had in retail.

DARNER: So it was pretty a ways away from home, and it was rough on my car and it was rough on me. I wouldn't get home until 11:30, 12 o'clock most nights. So it was pretty rough because I didn't have no time to get ready for the next day or have something to do with my free time. And I definitely didn't have enough time to do homework.

SIMON: Savannah says she likes to clean, so she chose a custodial job at the school district, and she likes it. Homework isn't a problem.

DARNER: It helps that I have a study hall at school, so it's pretty easy for me to balance, and I don't get off really late. I mean, 5 hours here is only like 8, so it's honestly not that bad. But 8 o'clock is whenever all the kids lay down at my house. So I would like to be home to spend time with my little nephew.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOMMY'S "TAKOYAKI PROMENADE")

DARNER: This job has definitely given me a different perspective on how I used to look at things. How do I put this? When I was younger, I didn't really look out for other people as much as I do now. I was a very selfish person when I was younger, but now I feel like my eyes have opened. And this job makes me feel like I'm giving back to the community that I took so much from. They're just really great people. I see things from a different side now.

SIMON: An administrator for the Northwest School District says their student employment program hasn't completely solved the district's staffing needs. They plan to continue it for as long as they can. And Savannah Darner likes the sound of that.

DARNER: School feels like home eventually just because you've been there so long. And yeah, from time to time, I say, oh, I can't wait to get out of here. I just want to go home. But when it's summertime, I'm like, what am I missing?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOMMY'S "TAKOYAKI PROMENADE")

SIMON: That's Savannah Darner. We also heard from Carissa Lunte. They are both students and employees at Northwest Schools in Missouri. They spoke to us for our series Outbreak Voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOMMY'S "TAKOYAKI PROMENADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.