Hawaii is offering high school students the chance to ride public transit to school for free this year as the state struggles to overcome a shortage of school bus drivers. The Department of Education said on Monday it was short about 14% of the drivers needed for a full staff, making it impossible to serve all the children on the island.
The EXPRESS, or Expanding Ridership to Educate Students in Schools, program is effective 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 are thrilled to be able to provide this opportunity,” Superintendent Keith Hayashi said at a press conference.
The $3-4 million pilot program, which will be funded by the DOE, comes as a shortage of school bus drivers extends into a second year, forcing officials to suspend and consolidate bus routes across the state.
Officials blamed the shortage on continued Covid-19 absences as well as a lack of recruits. Hayashi said it was a national issue, noting that drivers must go through a lengthy process to qualify 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 complement, DOE spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said.
Students in grades 9 through 12 can apply for their county bus pass online throughout the school year, which ends May 23. After applying online, students will be notified and issued their county bus pass by 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 is funding the cost of passes on Oahu for June and July, according to a news release.
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 yourself to think about your student and reflect on the following thoughts. Do they have a way to communicate with you? If they get off at the wrong stop, could they correct their course? Could they find their way back to school or home? How aware is your student of the situation and do they take safety seriously? ” she says.
Students with a school bus pass or HOLO card can still enroll in the EXPRESS program. However, according to the department, students will return their school bus pass upon receipt of their county bus pass. During this time, students with a HOLO card can either continue to use it throughout the school year or request the EXPRESS pass, and the HOLO card will be deactivated.
According to DOE officials, term passes for students cost $71 for a round trip, while a one-way ticket would cost $36.
“Accessibility to public transit has proven to be a better indicator for escaping poverty and succeeding in the future,” said Jon Nouchi, deputy director of the Honolulu Department of Transportation Services.
The state-funded pilot program will run until May 23, but the department will consider expanding its expansion after reviewing data on the number of students who have benefited from the program. To expand the program to elementary and middle school students, the department would have to seek funding from the Legislative Assembly, officials said.