Teen drivers

What should be an exciting time for teenagers has been put on hold for what could be an indefinite period of time due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety Driver and Vehicle Services shut down road exams earlier this week, and regional instructors worry about the backlog it will create for classrooms and behind-the-wheel lessons. (Press file photo)

There are many milestones in a young person’s life. Tying their own shoes, the first day of school, learning to ride a bike, all stepping stones to what feels like ultimate freedom and independence.

Nothing, however, compares to the feeling when a 16-year-old finally has their driver’s license.

“You can see the excitement when you hand them their blue card,” said Rick Bruns, the coordinator for the Le Sueur-Henderson Public Schools drivers training program. “There’s just kind of this sense that a whole rite of passage is going to start happening now.”

On a recent Friday, Bruns had just handed out a stack of blue cards — proof that a student has passed the 30 necessary hours of in class driving school — to a classroom full of eager 15-year-olds. Bruns knows that at least a couple of those students were able to go into the DMV on the following Monday to get their permits, but all activity beyond that for any new potential drivers in Minnesota has since stopped.

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Driver and Vehicles Services announced that all road exam stations would be shut down until at least Friday, March 27, as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This announcement impacts anyone with a Class D, commercial driver’s license, or motorcycle road test scheduled, as well as any new drivers looking to take their final test to obtain their first driver’s license.

Burns, as well as other driving instructors in southern Minnesota, can only assume that the suspended services will continue until the Minnesota Department of Health has decided that the state is no longer at risk during the global pandemic.

“We’ve locked everything down,” Burns said, stating that with social distancing guidelines and the MDH asking that everyone stay home is possible that behind-the-wheel training has been put to an immediate halt. “I think we’re all a little bit nervous about whether or not we drive with the students. I know I have a few students with just a couple hours left, and I’ve wondered if I should just get it done.”

Burns and his other two instructors, including a retired teacher who is considered a higher risk individual to catching coronavirus, all agreed that all aspects of the drivers training had to cease for the time being, but they also all worry about what that means when they start up again.

“What’s going to be the backlog with this?” Burns stated. “The testing station in Mankato is already backed up three or four months, so if you’re turning 16 you already weren’t going to get in until late June or early July. This is all just going to increase the inability for kids to get a road test.”

The fear of the system being overloaded with students is shared in the region, with Stephanie Ramgren, the owner of Alpha omegA Driving School in Owatonna, noting that it is her main concern.

“We are typically scheduling two to three months out for behind-the-wheel, and it is about the same for most exam stations with the road tests,” Ramgren explained. “Being forced to be at a complete stand still is becoming more and more concerning by the day. My hope is that the parents and students will understand that it may take us some time to bounce back from this and to get students rescheduled accordingly.”

Ramgren said that her business usually has 10 to 15 behind-the-wheel appointments per week, with a slight increase during the summer when students have more flexibility with their schedules. Each student is required to do three separate two-hour appointments with one of Alpha omegA’s three instructors sharing one vehicle. Ramgren added that she is anticipating that she and the other instructors will have to put in extra hours and potentially extra days to meet the needs of their students when they can resume business.

“We are doing our best to prepare for that,” she explained. “Trying to juggle our work life and home life to get all aspects of life back on track after this pandemic is going to be very difficult. We will do our best to continue to be as flexible and accommodating with students, parents, and their busy schedules one this pandemic has passed.”

Bruns also anticipates having to put in extra behind-the-wheel hours this summer, that is if life returns to its more normal rhythm by then.

“My typical schedule in the summer is to spend six hours in the driver’s education car. Usually I start by 8 a.m., and by about 1 p.m. I’m ready to crawl out of the car,” Bruns said. “But we’re going to have to go from 8 to 4 every day, and probably pick up some Saturdays. It’s just going to have to change the way we do things.”

Behind-the-wheel isn’t the only aspect of drivers training that is anticipated to be backlogged due to the pandemic. Joe Pientka, the coordinator for the drivers training program at the Faribault School District, said that they are already trying to figure out how to make up the classroom portion that was supposed to start this week.

“We were looking into doing some kind of online classroom, but we got a notice that we can’t do that either,” Pientka stated, saying that they have another class that was scheduled to being in late April as well, but that he is operating under the assumption that it too will have to be canceled. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. We have two June classes and two in July scheduled, but we’ll also have these two springs ones and those students to try to fit in.”

Pientka said they will have to try to get creative by either combining classes or have multiple teachers take on extra classes. He worries, though, about the schedules of these students and whether or not someone who thought they could make time in spring can find the time in summer.

“I don’t know how this is all going to play out, but I know that we’re flexible and we’ll work with all the kids,” Pientka said. There are seven instructors in the Faribault drivers training program, four of which teach both classroom and behind-the-wheel.

Despite the anticipated extra work they see in their future, the instructors all agree that the kids are the ones who will be hit the hardest.

“My own son was supposed to be in the class that was coming up this week,” Pientka said. “This is a big deal to them and a big step.”

“This is the hardest part as an instructor,” Ramgren said about knowing the disappointment her students are currently facing. “I feel horrible that not only did we have to cancel appointments, but that their road tests have been canceled as well. For some of them, they have it all planned out to test on their 16th birthday and that has now been pulled right out from underneath them.”

“As an educator, the priority is always students first,” added Bruns, who is also a social studies teacher at Le Sueur-Henderson. “We will do everything we can to accommodate these kids. It’s going to be crazy, but we just have to change how we do things.”

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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