Hawaii is offering high school students the opportunity to take public transportation to school for free this year as the state struggles to overcome a school bus driver shortage. The Department of Education said Monday that it is missing about 14% of the drivers needed for a full staff, making it impossible to serve all of the island’s children.

The EXPRESS program, or Expanding Ridership to Educate Students in Schools, takes effect immediately and will allow eligible students in all four counties to apply for subsidized county bus passes that can be used through July 31, according to the DOE.

“This has the potential to help thousands of our students, and we’re excited to be able to provide this opportunity,” Superintendent Keith Hayashi said during a news conference.

The $3 million to $4 million pilot program, which will be funded by the DOE, comes as the school bus driver shortage extends into a second year, forcing officials to suspend and consolidate bus routes across the state.

Waimea Middle School's bus. Owned by the school, gift from a donor.
The state Department of Education is down 90 school bus drivers. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Officials blamed the shortage on continued Covid-19 absences as well as a lack of recruits. Hayashi said it’s a nationwide problem, noting that drivers must undergo a lengthy process to complete the needed requirements to drive a school bus, which can take three to six months.

Currently, the department is down to 560 bus drivers, 90 short of the 650 needed for a full staff, DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said.

Students in grades 9-12 can apply for their county bus passes online through the school year, which ends on May 23. After applying online, students will be notified and receive their county bus pass at their school.

According to DOE officials, the department expects to pay $3 million to $4 million for the program. The City and County of Honolulu funded the cost of passes on Oahu for June and July, a press release said.

About 6,000 high school students currently ride the school bus, according to Emily Evans of the DOE’s office of facilities and operations. She acknowledged that not all families would want to participate in the program and urged people to consider safety factors.

“We want you to ask that you think about your student and consider the following thoughts. Do they have a way to communicate with you? If they get off at the wrong stop, could they course correct? Could they find their way back to school or home? What is your student’s level of situational awareness, and do they take safety seriously?” she said.

Students with a school bus pass or a HOLO card can still apply for the EXPRESS program. However, according to the department, students will return their school bus pass upon receipt of their county bus pass. Meanwhile, students with a HOLO card can either keep using it throughout the school year or apply for the EXPRESS pass, and the HOLO card will be deactivated.

According to DOE officials, quarterly student bus passes are $71 for a round trip, while one way would be $36.

“Accessibility to transit has been shown as a greater indicator as to escaping poverty and achieving future success,” said Jon Nouchi, deputy director of the Honolulu Department of Transportation Services.

The state-funded pilot program will continue until May 23, but the department will consider expanding it after reviewing data on how many students benefited from the program. To expand the program to elementary and middle school students, the department would have to request funding from the Legislature, officials said.

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