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Why Hawaii Can’t Solve Its School Bus Driver Shortage

For the second year in a row, school bus service will be interrupted at several campuses due to a longstanding driver shortage, forcing many students to take public transportation.

The state Department of Education announced Tuesday that bus service will be canceled or suspended at 10 high schools on Oahu and four schools on Kauai. Instead, eligible students will be given free passes to use public transportation when the new school year begins on Aug. 7.

The Expanding Ridership to Educate Students in School program began in the previous school year as the state grappled with a driver shortage that stemmed from the coronavirus pandemic and was exacerbated by competition with more lucrative full-time jobs in other fields.

The state tried to recruit more school bus drivers by offering signing bonuses, job fairs and flexible schedules, but it still came up short after 76 drivers quit their jobs over the last year, according to a press release.

Randy Tanaka, the DOE Assistant Superintendent for the Office of Facilities and Operations, addresses a press conference to update the status of the school bus system in the state.
Assistant superintendent Randall Tanaka says officials tried offering incentives to recruit more school bus drivers, but the state still came up short. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

While the state’s eight bus service contractors had 650 drivers before the pandemic, the DOE said it currently needs 230 more drivers to fully staff the bus routes. Just two days ago, two more drivers left the system, according to Randall Tanaka, the assistant superintendent for the DOE’s office of facilities and operations.

He noted that the numbers may change as other drivers are hired or leave. School bus drivers are part time and must have a commercial drivers license, which can be a complicated process.

“There’s just not enough qualified drivers in the pool and school transport requires a different level of CDL licensing,” Tanaka said.

The affected schools on Oahu include Aiea, Campbell, Castle, Kailua, Kapolei, Mililani, Nanakuli, Pearl City, Waianae and Waipahu.

Kauai’s Hanalei Elementary, Kapaa Elementary, Middle and High will also have suspended services. School bus service will continue on Maui and the Big Island, but there will be changes. Services on Lanai and Molokai will remain the same.

With two weeks to go before school starts, the DOE encouraged families to familiarize their children with public transit. 

Tanaka said the new rail service that began earlier this month in Honolulu would provide more options.

“With the advent of Skyline coming on board, we believe that this will help get people acclimated to mass transit,” Tanaka said.

The city’s Department of Transportation Services Director Roger Morton called the program a “win-win,” saying that it will have the added benefit of promoting public transportation and environmental sustainability as well as easing traffic congestion.

Eligible students will get a free HOLO pass valued at $400 for 10 months. The HOLO pass will be loaded into the student’s ID card with parental permission. 

The city bus does not have a minimum age requirement so children will be able to use it alone.

Addressing safety concerns, Tanaka said, “I have to rely on my partners, the city and county and all of the other guys, that they do their best to provide a safe transport.”

Marissa Baptista, a board member of the Hawaii Congress of Parents, Teachers, and Students and a mother of two public school students at Moanalua, has permitted her high school daughter to receive the HOLO pass as a part of the EXPRESS program.

The high-schooler will be taking the Skyline Rail to school.

While Baptista said she doesn’t have many concerns with public transportation in Hawaii, she is worried about children’s safety on the streets.

“If we’re not going to give children the ability to ride a school bus, we need to make the roads safer for them to either walk or bike to school,” Baptista said.

Source : CivilBeat