Updated: October 2, 2022
By Cammy Clark
The 2022-23 academic year has begun in Hawai’i, but many parents on Maui and across the state have a big problem: How do they get their kids to and from school?
The Hawaiʻi State Department of Education said in an email that more than 100 school bus drivers left the job during the first year or so of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this school year the agency still is short 90 drivers despite a variety of recruiting efforts. Those efforts include increasing wages and benefits, providing hiring bonuses and even asking the National Guard and retired firefighters for help.
On Maui, HIDOE held a driver recruitment event in June for 12 to 15 open positions and only six people showed up, none with a commercial driver’s license. And, not all of the six passed the required background check, according to HIDOE.
Unable to fill the majority of vacant positions, HIDOE has had to combine routes, have buses do multiple runs and cancel some routes.
This has left many parents scrambling to find transportation for their children to get to and from school.
Last week, parents of children who attend Lahaina Intermediate and Lahainaluna High School were informed by a letter from HIDOE that as of Aug. 22, eight bus routes were being canceled indefinitely for both morning and afternoon.
No other school on Maui received such a letter, but a general parent notification was shared with Maui school principals who could send it out as needed to let families know about the bus driver shortage, HIDOE said.
A parent from King Kekaulike High School wrote in an email to Maui Now that about 100 kids have been affected by the cut in school bus service for the Upcountry school, including her son who is a freshman and has to walk three miles to and from school.
“Last year they lost a bus driver on an upcountry route and that bus driver was never replaced,” wrote the parent who wanted to remain anonymous. “All the kids on that route went without bus service the entire year. It would be tragic to have something similar happening again but on an even larger scale.”
HIDOE said it does not have an exact count on how many children are affected by the shortage.
The agency did say the problem is worse on the neighbor islands of Maui, Kaua’i and the Big Island, which have a combined 18,000 students. Many schools are in rural areas, with some children living more than 10 miles from their schools.
HIDOE said with the grace period for having student bus passes ending last week, it now will be able to get a more accurate count of ridership levels on each route. To be eligible to ride the bus, elementary students must not live within 1 mile of their school and high school students must not live within 1.5 miles of their school.
To help parents, HIDOE said: “Families who are eligible for transportation but are unable to utilize the service due to the driver shortage may apply for mileage reimbursement with the Department.”
Recruiting new school bus drivers has its challenges. Federal law requires school bus drivers to have their commercial driver’s license (CDL) and two additional endorsements. They also must pass a background check. Meeting all of the requirements can take anywhere from 3 to 6 months to complete.
The pandemic also has exacerbated a nationwide shortage of CDL drivers, making them in high demand for many other jobs, including trucking.
A National School Transportation Association survey in 2021 reported more than 80% of school districts in the United States have altered service, and 51% describe their staffing issue as “severe” or “desperate.” And the situation has not gotten much better in 2022.
On Maui, DOE contracts with the O’ahu-based company Ground Transportation to supply school buses and drivers. They currently service 17 public schools on Maui, according to the company website.
During the June recruitment event at Maui High School, and for their current openings, the company offers starting pay of $26.50 per hour, with annual increases for applicants who already have a CDL.
For people who don’t have a CDL, Ground Transport will provide training and licensing for approved applicants. Starting pay is $18.50 per hour with paid training to get a commercial driver’s license.
School bus drivers with Ground Transportation are guaranteed a minimum of 22.5 hours per week when school is in session. The company’s number is 808-442-3055.
The DOE provided a list of all the efforts its Student Transportation Services Branch has done and is doing to try to minimize impact in the communities. Here are ones not previously mentioned:
- All available qualified personnel, including company owners, supervisors and trainers, are on the roads driving routes everyday
- Reached out to other school bus providers not currently contracted by the state, but they were also short drivers and could not assist
- Talked with county public transit offices to see if the public transit buses could assist with adding routes, but they are short drivers as well
- Asked the National Guard for driver assistance, which they could not provide due to lack of qualified personnel
- Reached out to tour companies, but due to lack of qualified personnel and insurance liability issues, they could not assist
- Reached out to the firefighter associations (active and retired), but they are back-up for EMT drivers who are also short-handed
- Reached out to mainland school bus suppliers, but due to being a nationwide problem none were able to assist
- Implemented a significant driver differential pay in some areas, but it still didn’t attract enough drivers to fill the gap.
HIDOE said it is continuing to explore options to provide bus services while adhering to federal laws required to transport students. But for now, there is no end in sight to the shortage.