At Honokaa High and Intermediate, a rural school on the northern side of the Big Island, 60% of the school’s 630 students live in Waimea, which is 15 miles west along Highway 19.

That’s only a 20-minute drive away, but it might as well be on the other side of the island for many children. Dependent on the school bus to get to class, many students have been virtually stranded at home for long stretches of time because of a school bus driver shortage.

The problem began at the start of the school year in August and has shown no signs of improving amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The driver shortages, which are affecting schools statewide but especially rural areas of Hawaii island, have contributed to high student absentee rates, according to the state Department of Education.

“It’s super, super frustrating. The bus service has been a literal nightmare,” said Honokaa’s principal Rachelle Matsumara. “We have kids who have been home over 20 days.”

Honokaa High and Elementary, school, Big Island
Honokaa High and Intermediate on Hawaii island, where 60% of students rely on the school bus, has faced driver shortages, contributing to a high student absentee rate. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2019

Facing a lack of shifts after schools went remote early in the pandemic, many school bus drivers quit after finding jobs in other industries or moving away. Some contracted Covid-19, leading to prolonged absences.

The process for getting a commercial driver’s license, which is required to drive a school bus, is time-consuming and costly, making proposed short-term fixes like asking the National Guard to provide temporary drivers, non-starters.

“We’re all frustrated by the situation and what we’re experiencing is obviously the result of the impact of the pandemic,” Randall Tanaka, the DOE assistant superintendent in charge of facilities, said at a recent House education committee briefing.

Monthslong Problem

To put the problem into perspective, 30 of a total 650 bus routes were temporarily suspended statewide as of a week ago. Tanaka told lawmakers that eight drivers in a single week had recently called out sick, four each on either side of Hawaii island.

“It’s not an equipment shortage, it’s a driver shortage,” Tanaka said. “I can appreciate the challenges for the parents and they have been extraordinary helpful in trying to carpool.”

The school bus driver pool is down 15%, a statistic that hasn’t improved since November, according to a January DOE memo to the board of Education.

Emily Evans, the DOE student transportation service administrator, said school bus routes are being consolidated where needed. “Run routes have been doubled and in some places tripled to increase seating capacity,” she said.

Pre-pandemic, Honokaa High and Intermediate School had eight bus routes — six servicing Waimea and two Honokaa. Now, that number has been cut in half.

Of those remaining four bus routes, service may be temporarily suspended for a number of reasons, from the driver falling ill to having to redirect the bus to serve the elementary school instead.

Parents drive their children to school when they can, but the timing is a challenge since many work early morning shifts in South Kohala resorts.

“We don’t see in the near future any way to resolve this,” Matsumara said. “We’re trying to figure out what happens next.” The school has even turned to hiring full-time teachers on a contractual, part-time basis to go pick up the students before or after school hours with the school van.

A school bus heads towards Pearl City along Farrington Highway.
A school bus driver shortage has prompted education officials to consolidate and in some cases cancel routes for most of the year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

In a typical year, school buses serve 15,000 students on Oahu and 18,000 students on the neighbor islands, or 20% of the entire public school enrollment.

The one bus route serving Paauilo Elementary and Intermediate School, seven miles from Honokaa, has been suspended for the entire school year due to a lack of bus drivers.

“Parents have been bringing their students to school with the help of family and friends,” school principal Felicia Friend Linton said. “On a limited case-by-case basis we have worked with families to find solutions, including several staff who assist with driving our school van.”

Better Tracking Needed

School bus woes have also been cited as one of the reasons behind a troubling trend in low student attendance, with absentee rates reaching 30% in some areas earlier this year.

At Honokaa, the students who can’t come to school due to a lack of transportation are logging on to Google Classroom and completing work that way, according to Matsumara, but it’s “not the real deal” without a teacher’s involvement, she said.

The DOE’s computerized attendance system does not include a menu option to note that a child missed school due to lack of transportation, leaving students vulnerable to being labeled “chronically absent” for missing 15 or more days in a school year, even if the lack of a bus was the reason.

“It’s unfair they would be considered chronically absent when they want to go to school,” Matsumara said. The Honokaa principal has requested that DOE consider adding a drop-down code to denote “transportation” as an excused absence, similar to the way “quarantine” was added in September as a valid excuse due to the frequency of Covid exposure cases.

DOE spokesman Derek Inoshita said schools have the option of using an existing code and entering a reason for that absence under special circumstances. He said the transportation issue is “being discussed internally to determine the best process to collect and track the data, be it a drop-down code or other method.”

Requests For Help Denied

In a December presentation to the Board of Education, the DOE said it has requested driver assistance from the National Guard, firefighters and tour operators, but those requests were “denied” either for lack of appropriate personnel, driver shortages in those industries or lack of required driver qualifications.

Tanaka said the DOE has explored other options such as adjusting bell schedules to better coordinate rides, supplying schools with small passenger vans that don’t require a commercial driver’s license, reimbursing parents mileage to drive their children to school or providing county bus passes.

“All of these (options) are in the queue, and we continue to struggle with it,” he told lawmakers.

Roberts Hawaii, one of the two main DOE bus contractors, has offered signing bonuses of $500 to $1,000 and relocation benefits to lure drivers.

Euclid LoGiudice, a former school bus driver on Hawaii island for Roberts Hawaii, retired in early November after nearly two decades on the job because he didn’t want to take on extra routes.

“In the 16 years I’ve been driving school buses, there have always been driver shortages because the hours are terrible; responsibility for the lives and safety of other peoples’ kids is not an easy task,” LoGiudice said. “School bus drivers are human. We get sick. We catch Covid.”

In a job advertisement, Roberts does not list vaccination as a driver requirement. However, as school-based private contractors, DOE bus drivers are required to provide proof of vaccination or weekly testing status, according to DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani.

“We monitor and enforce the requirement through an online platform,” she said. “All drivers are required to input their vaccination status or, if they are not vaccinated, upload test results weekly.”

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