The Anoka-Hennepin School District — the state's largest — has been hit hard by pandemic-related employee shortages, including among the janitorial staff.

The district is 18 custodians short of the 220 it typically employs, said Tom Karp, assistant director of buildings and grounds, and that means areas of buildings sometimes aren't cleaned as quickly as they should be right away.

It's a frustrating problem for Karp, who had a recent brainstorm for how to solve it: "I said, what if we looked at the untapped potential of high school kids?" he said.

The result is a new program, piloted at Blaine High School, in which high school students clean classrooms for two hours each afternoon. The district hopes to expand the program to other schools soon, Karp said.

When the district could not fill three of its 10 full-time custodian positions at Blaine High, Karp said, he initially sought substitute after-school janitors. But he found that many of the young people interested in the job didn't have a driver's license.

So he approached assistant principal Steve Drewlo with the idea to use students — preferably younger students who may not be able to find a job elsewhere — and asked him to suggest candidates.

"We were immediately on board," Drewlo said. "We were really limited to having zero other alternatives."

The school has recently added square footage, making the need even more dire, he said.

The college and career coordinator found a handful of kids who wanted to give the job a try, and now there are eight students who sign up for individual two-hour shifts online.

"Now more kids are willing to give this thing a go," Drewlo said. "[Karp's] idea is saving the day."

The students are paid $15.30 an hour, the same rate a substitute janitor would earn. Then they can take the school activity bus home, so no need to find their own transportation.

The students don't clean bathrooms or locker rooms, Karp said, because those are areas where gender could be an issue. They also don't do the kitchen; that's inspected by the health department and would mean too much responsibility, he said.

And they don't use any harsh chemicals — a bottle of Windex and a vacuum cleaner are their main tools. They typically sweep, vacuum, take out the garbage, clean glass and straighten desks.

They've been "terrific" and "reliable," said Karp, who called the program "extremely successful."

Drewlo said there's another benefit: The students feel they are "giving back" to their school, just like with a work-study job on a college campus.

"There's a sense of pride that is coming with this program," Drewlo said.

Connor Bayerkohler, a 17-year-old junior, said he worked for 3 1/2 hours Thursday because it was an early-release day.

He vacuumed the auditorium, emptied garbage cans, swept common areas and hallways, dusted and replaced old light bulbs with LEDs during his shift.

"I'm the type of person who kind of likes to clean," Bayerkohler said.

It's his first job other than working as a baseball umpire in the summer. He enjoys working with fellow students, he said, and would recommend it to other teens.

"It's just kind of low key," Bayerkohler said. "It's nice because you don't really have to commute to anywhere."