A Northland school bus service cannot remember the last time it had to advertise for drivers.
But as Omicron cases rise in the region, short-staffed operators warn service cutbacks are set to start next week.
Northland bus operators are "just" managing to stay afloat despite feeling stranded by a lack of financial support from the Ministry of Education.
The ministry's contract with transport service providers stated payments would not be made when school transport services are cancelled due to driver unavailability.
Leabourn Passenger Services owner Leydon Leabourn finds it "really odd" that Covid-positive teachers get paid but contractors - like bus drivers - do not under the same circumstances.
"We have a pandemic plan in place if some of our drivers become sick. The biggest issue we have got is the Ministry of Education saying they won't pay the contractors if a driver is sick with Omicron."
During term one this year, schools and kura can apply for additional relief funding for Covid-19 staff-related absences to replace teaching and non-teaching staff.
Relief funding for teachers can be claimed after the school board covers the first four days of a Covid-19 staff-related absence and from day one for non-teaching staff.
Leabourn Passenger Services has 70 to 80 Northland drivers who provide transport to roughly 2000 students from Dargaville to Warkworth.
Ritchies Transport Northland regional manager Tony Manga said some of his drivers had tested positive for Omicron.
It was now hard to know how many bus drivers would show up for work the next day.
Kaipara was the most badly affected area in terms of the driver shortage, Manga said.
"Kaipara does not have the people we can call on to drive as we do in Whangārei."
The service had called on drivers from Christchurch, Hastings and Auckland but they had been recalled because of shortages in their own areas.
"We use up every available resource we have, and once they are gone, we inform the Ministry of Education and schools that we cannot do the run for that particular day or week."
Manga said it had become very difficult to hire new school bus drivers as the available pool continued to dwindle.
"I can't even remember the last time we had to advertise for a bus driver and it was never advertised on the radio before, but now we have to."
Recruitment was made more challenging as bus drivers had to meet specific requirements, such as double police vetting.
"The pool of people I have to try to select from they want to be part of the community but unfortunately they have a history that they can't," Manga said.
"There are not many workers to choose from. We are just relying on working from home mums and dads who want to come and drive a school bus."
The job used to attract a lot of retirees "but a lot of them have decided this is not for them", he said.
Ritchies Transport had 350 staff operating across Northland. Each of their buses can carry between 30 to 50 students with vans and cars available to transport fewer pupils.
Te Wai Ora Coachlines is currently the only means of transport for 20 students travelling from Dargaville to Whangārei schools.
George Beasley, owner and driver, was concerned about how long this could carry on before he or his other driver tested positive for Omicron.
"If we come down with it, the run has to stop. It would have been better if the isolation period was shortened instead of removing it altogether for close contacts to add a protection layer," Beasley said.
Their usual service of shuttling boarding school students from Northland to Auckland and back again in weekends has been paused since the Government's Omicron response kicked in.
Back in January, the Ministry of Education alerted schools to the high possibility some school transport services may be cancelled at very short notice because of isolating drivers.
They warned it was unlikely replacement drivers would be available.
Students affected by a transport service cancellation for five days or more may be eligible for a Conveyance Allowance provided by the Ministry of Education.
School Transport group manager James Meffan said schools were asked to ensure students and caregivers were prepared for the possibility of cancelled services.
"... and that they'll need to have their own plan in place for transporting their children to and from school."
In addition, transport service providers were encouraged to register for the Government's Close Contact Exemption Scheme so they could access rapid antigen tests (RATs).
Meffan said a number of services providers had successfully registered and were using RATs to "minimise disruption to school transport services".