Heading into the summer, Hawaii Department of Education officials knew they were facing a shortage of school bus drivers in yet another side effect of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, well into the first month of the new school year, many parents are feeling the impact since their kids are unable to get to and from school after routes were condensed to accommodate the shortage.

“It’s kind of vital,” Kelly Jones, a single parent who works at The Queen’s Medical Center and is herself a student at Kapiolani Community College, said of bus transportation for her daughter, a ninth grader at Kapolei High. “She has to get to school. I’m in a panic, and no one will call me back.”

Roberts School Bus travels thru a parking lot to pick up some students. August 17, 2020
Roberts Hawaii is one of the largest DOE school bus contractors in the state. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The Makakilo resident has been unable to secure a space on the school bus for her daughter despite weeks of efforts, forcing her to consider sacrificing her own work and school obligations to drive her daughter to school or on occasion keep her home.

“It’s not like it’s an unwillingness to send her to school,” Jones said. “She’s a straight-A student, and I’m a proactive parent.”

The state is short approximately 100 bus drivers out of 650, with the gaps most deeply felt on the west side of Hawaii island and the Leeward and Windward sides of Oahu, according to Emily Evans, administrator of the student transportation services branch of the DOE office of facilities and operations.

She said these regions have a higher rate of drivers required to quarantine due to possible Covid-19 exposure.

Evans said the DOE is working with the bus companies “to expedite the hiring of qualified drivers to keep our service levels as close to normal as possible.”

“Each contractor is currently hiring, offering hiring bonuses and/or relocation incentives,” she said in an email.

The state DOE contracts with eight private companies to provide school bus transportation across the islands. The two largest providers are Roberts Hawaii and Ground Transport Inc.

Before the pandemic, approximately 38,000 public school kids relied on the school bus, with 652 buses on the road any given day across the state, according to the DOE. Though there is some expected drop-off since the pandemic, “daily route counts have been on par with a normal school year,” according to Evans.

Advance Warnings

The bus driver shortage, which is being felt nationwide, was becoming apparent to DOE officials well ahead of the new school year, which began on Aug. 3 with the full reopening of all 257 public schools in Hawaii after a year and a half of mostly distance or hybrid learning.

“The Department was aware that there would be a driver shortage to some degree going into the summer,” Evans said on Tuesday, adding that her office “worked all summer with contractors to consolidate routes in order to minimize the impact on service levels.”

On the eve of the official school start date, Randall Tanaka, the DOE’s assistant superintendent in charge of facilities, warned school principals and complex area superintendents that the situation was getting worse.

“In the past two weeks, five out of eight contractors started reporting an alarming influx in driver resignations,” he wrote in a memo obtained by Civil Beat.

Reasons for the resignations included moving off island, finding another job, concern over increasing Covid-19 case counts and many who waited until the last minute to quit “so they could keep their unemployment benefits for as long as possible,” he said. “As the contractors are calling employees back for training, they are stalling and then finally resigning when forced to make a decision.”

Evans said that prompted “further consolidation and revision of routes to ensure as much coverage as possible.”

The disruption has continued through the first two weeks of school, as “contractors continued to report driver resignations or drivers unable to work in order to meet Covid quarantine requirements,” she said.

In a phone interview, Louis Gomes, president of Ground Transport Inc., which operates school bus routes on Oahu and Maui, confirmed that many of his drivers have left the company for pandemic-related reasons.

“Since the start of the new school year, we’ve had a number of drivers who relocated, left the state, or some who decided not to come back and drive because of the increase of Covid numbers,” he said. “They don’t want to be in this field anymore.”

Children under 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, raising concern among many drivers who feel vulnerable to the virus. To enforce safety protocols, students are currently spaced two to a seat, rather than three to a seat, and when the pandemic initially started, Ground Transport placed students in every other row.

Student received her COVID-19 vaccination at Ilima Intermediate School and needed to wait to be observed after shot.
Kids under 12 are not yet eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine, but schools have set up mobile vaccination clinics for eligible students and other individuals. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The company, which typically employs roughly 200 bus drivers, is down 15 since the pandemic started, said Gomes.

Adding to the current stress of the situation is the fact that not all schools, even in the same geographic region, follow the same bell schedule. That means some buses are forced to adjust their pick-up times and make double trips.

“I’m not aware of any students who are not able to get to school — however, they may be running a little late,” Gomes said.

The problem is more acute for Jones, who will have to keep her daughter home from school several days this week due to the lack of a ride.

“Each contractor is currently hiring, offering hiring bonuses and/or relocation incentives.” — Emily Evans of the DOE

Kapolei High school officials have told her the bus doesn’t have enough room to accommodate her daughter and that there is a waitlist of other students. They gave her a DOE transportation office phone number to contact and said an assistant principal would be in touch, but Jones could not reach anybody to offer any alternatives.

A city bus would take too long, and she’s not comfortable carpooling with strangers.

“I like the comfort the (school) bus provides,” she said. “She’s with her peers, under a system that’s regulated. I know as long as she gets on the bus, she’s safe.”

The cost of a quarterly round trip school bus pass is $72.

Trying To Minimize Disruption

Adding to the frustration, Jones was told her daughter’s absences from school would be “considered unexcused.” One counselor suggested trying to get her daughter on the school’s distance learning waitlist. Several teachers offered to send work home.

“I am out of options and have no choice but to keep my daughter home, truant from school,” Jones said on Monday.

Kapolei High’s principal, Wesley Shinkawa, declined to comment.

Sean Tajima, the complex area superintendent for Campbell-Kapolei, said officials had to make difficult choices.

“Bus contractors are doing everything they can to get back to normal service levels,” he said in an email response. “Given the limited resources, our current priorities are to service our special education students, McKinney-Vento Act students (who are homeless) and rural areas first.”

But even some priority students were initially left stranded.

Maui parent Lisa Vye said the school bus never came for her son, a first grade special education student at Haiku Elementary, on the first day of school on Aug. 4, despite its inclusion in his individualized education program.

The bus showed up a week later, but only after she flooded the system with calls to the principal, student service coordinator, complex area superintendent, interim DOE superintendent, Maui mayor’s office and finally, the governor’s office.

“I felt like everybody was kicking the can,” she said. “If you don’t advocate for your child, they won’t give you anything.”

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