Pilot program aims to help students get to school

DOE giving out county bus passes after lack of drivers cuts public school bus routes

A county bus heads up Keawe Street in Lahaina in December 2017. The state Department of Education announced Monday that it will be providing free county bus passes to high school students to help with transportation to school after a shortage of bus drivers impacted routes statewide, including eight in West Maui. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The state Department of Education is partnering with counties across the state to offer free public transit bus passes for high schoolers, some of whom have seen their bus routes suspended or consolidated due to driver shortages.

Maui has bore the brunt of the transportation woes with eight suspended routes, which affect students at Lahainaluna High and Lahaina Intermediate.

Emily Evans, student transportation services administrator, said at a news conference on Oahu Monday afternoon that she didn’t have the number of routes affected across the state, as many were consolidated, including some on Oahu, but said that Maui had eight routes affected and Kauai had five. Officials did not give numbers on affected routes on Hawaii island.

The DOE pilot project “EXPRESS,” which stands for Expanding Ridership to Educate Students in Schools, was announced by Superintendent Keith Hayashi, who said that high schoolers can register for a pass now on the DOE’s website.

“The goal is to increase high school student ridership on county bus services, so that underutilized school buses can be reassigned to restore canceled and consolidated routes,” Hayashi said.

The program is open to all ninth through 12th graders, with passes to be distributed in the upcoming weeks, he added. The passes can be utilized for nonschool transportation, the DOE said.

According to the DOE, the EXPRESS program could benefit more than 21,000 students, or 47 percent of public high school students who are currently ineligible for bus service because they live within the walking zone of their school campus. Overall, around 6,000 high school students currently use school bus service to get to and from campuses statewide.

School officials are hoping the pilot program can make up for the lack of school bus drivers. The DOE said it was short around 90 drivers across the state when school began last month.

They are actively trying to recruit more drivers.

Federal law requires school bus drivers to have their commercial driver’s license and two additional endorsements. Driver recruitment events were held in the summer and drew six applicants on Maui, but none had their CDL and not all passed the background check, the DOE said. Meeting all of the driver requirements can take three to six months, according to the DOE. The shortage of drivers is also being felt nationally.

Evans said the pilot program may not be suitable for every family, but that parents thinking of having their high schooler receive a pass should consider if their child has way to communicate with their parents, if the child can “course correct” if they go to a wrong stop, what the student’s level of situational awareness is and if they take safety seriously.

On Maui, passes will be good for each month through July 2023. Approved applicants will receive confirmation and their county bus pass directly through their school, according to a news release.

Applications can be found at iportal.k12.hi.us/express.

“Maui County’s partnership with the Department of Education extends beyond the classroom,” said Mayor Michael Victorino in a news release. “We are happy to offer free passes to students who can ride the Maui Bus to school to help mitigate the temporary shortage of school bus drivers. We hope it helps to fill an important need.”

At the news conference, Evans said the DOE will evaluate the ridership on the county buses and see how it impacts the school bus routes. New adjustments to school routes could come in January, or maybe sooner.

Students who have already paid for a second quarter pass or bus coupons may request a refund after receiving their county bus pass at bit.ly/STSB-refund. School bus refund requests should be made only after receiving the county bus pass to avoid premature deactivation of the school bus pass, according to a news release.

ADA and paratransit services are not included in the pilot program. For more information, see bit.ly/HIDOEstudent-transportation.

The DOE will also continue its morning and afternoon shuttle between the Wharf Cinema Center and Lahaina Intermediate and Lahainaluna High School, officials confirmed.

For Lahainaluna, the school bus shuttle needs to leave the campus no later than 1:57 p.m. For Lahaina Intermediate, the school bus shuttle needs to leave no later than 2:15 p.m.

For the morning shuttle from the Wharf Cinema Center at the intersection of Luakini and Hale streets, students need to be at the location by 7:40 a.m. with their bus pass.

DOE officials said that the West Maui routes are the most affected on the island, although more bus drivers are needed for Kihei as well.

Molokai has also seen some issues, as a DOE spokesperson said recently that there has been an influx of students who needed transportation. Maui Economic Opportunity is assisting, the DOE said.

“As a provider of transportation services, we understand the driver shortage problem,” said MEO CEO Debbie Cabebe. “We are happy to step in and fill a need for families on Molokai. Children need to be in school, especially after the last couple of years of the pandemic.”

MEO said that about 17 students on two central Kaunakakai routes were notified last month that they were being put on a waitlist for rides on the school bus.

The rides by MEO are provided at no cost, the organization said. The rural shuttle that is being used to help the students is already running and is funded by Maui County.

MEO said it could also expand to accommodate more students if needed.

For more information about MEO Transportation on Molokai, call (808) 553-3218.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.


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