Hawaii DOE hoping to solve bus driver shortage, COVID safety concerns


HONOLULU (KHON2) — The Hawaii Department of Education (DOE) answered questions from state lawmakers Wednesday, Sept. 8, about what can be done to improve learning and safety as the state battles COVID and the delta variant.

The DOE said about 9,400 students are now distance learning — up from about 2,000 last month.

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Interim School Superintendent Keith Hayashi continues to push for students to learn in person.

“As much as it’s not just about the academics, it definitely is academics, it’s also about the social support that students get while they’re in school. It’s about having breakfast and lunch and meals, guidance and counseling and so forth,” Hayashi said.

It is tough for some kids to even get to school. The DOE is about 100 bus drivers short of the 650 it needs, so it is offering Hele-On bus passes and mileage reimbursements to parents, along with incentives to prospective drivers.

“We’ve talked to them about incentives. They have an incentive for drivers but understand it’s an implication for every type of labor shortage we have, are we going to provide an incentive for that?” DOE Assistant Superintendent Randall Tanaka said.

There have been 2,454 cases among DOE staff and students since July. According to the Department of Health (DOH), a close contact for masked students indoors is within three feet of a person with the coronavirus for 15 minutes.

“Once those students or employees are identified, principals are notifying the parents of those students that they will then need to quarantine. and what we’re calling that is the close contact communication, which is different from the contact tracing that the dept of health does,” Hayashi said.

A DOE elementary school parent said that is not acceptable and wants schools to consider an entire classroom as close contacts.

“The way it stands right now is that literally the kid who sits three feet from my son in his elementary could get sick, get COVID test, have delta, and I don’t have to be told because they sit three and a half feet away.” Marcus Landsberg said.

A Big Island teacher is nervous about kids coming to school sick.

“Currently, many of my colleagues we don’t actually know if students are a close contact, we don’t even know if they’re positive,” Hilo Intermediate School social studies teacher Aaron Kubo said.

The House Education Committee is hoping surveillance testing can help mitigate any spread.

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“That’s actually critically important to have an additional layer of protection. And so it was touched upon briefly in the informational briefing, but that’s something that we are requesting that the department look into, see if they can’t handle because of capacity issues that can’t do everything if they can’t simply do it themselves. That is understandable, but because there are resources available. Go ahead and contract that out for someone else to take care of that surveillance testing because it is in our minds crucially important to help mitigate the spread of the virus,” Education Committee Chair Justin Woodson said.

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