Student driver

A pair of local senators want to make online driver’s ed classes permanent. They first went online during the pandemic. (Metro Creative image)

When the pandemic hit Minnesota last spring, it changed the way business is conducted in previously unimaginable and rapid ways. In many communities, that included the advent of online driver’s ed classes.

Sens. John Jasinski, R-Faribault, and Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, are co-sponsoring a bill that would enable students under the age of 18 to continue online driver’s ed classes even after the pandemic. Jasinski said the change would provide needed flexibility for families.

Jasinski’s advocacy for the bill is shaped in part by personal experience. When his kids were going through driver’s education, he said it was always a challenge to fit in the in-person classes around other commitments. By contrast, Jasinski has been able to utilize online education classes as he goes through the process of securing his pilot’s license. He said that if online education is good enough to teach a pilot, it should be good enough to teach a driver.

Given significant improvements in technology, Jasinksi said the bill makes more sense than it might have a few years ago. It tries to utilize that technology by requiring “accountability” features designed to prevent cheating and ensure students are actually learning.

The law would only apply to the classroom portion of drivers ed, with students still required to take the behind the wheel portion in person. It wouldn’t require online classes, so students and families who prefer traditional in-person classes would still be able to take those.

Reactions to the bill from local road safety advocates and drivers ed teachers have ranged from skeptical to critical. Rice County Sheriff Troy Dunn said that law enforcement also much prefers the in-person classes, seeing them as offering a much more complete learning experience.

Like Dunn, Faribault Public Schools Superintendent Todd Sesker believes the best way to teach driver’s ed classes is in person. However, he’s willing to consider online driver's education so long as rules to ensure effective student engagement are included.

Owatonna driver's ed Teacher Kent Buryska doesn’t believe the current bill’s proposed rules have gone far enough. He’d like to see legislators go with a system that is “virtual,” allowing online participation but only at a set time.

“I don’t like a system where students can log on and do their work at 2 a.m.,” he said. “They should have a live instructor.

Kristen Giessler of Northfield Area Driving School in Dundas believes that courses taught under it would not be required to meet “best practices” standards. If students get through the course without learning crucial information, she said the consequences could be dire.

“Teaching driver’s ed is a much bigger deal than teaching geometry,” she said. “They won’t die if they learn geometry poorly, but they could if they learn driver’s ed poorly.”

Giessler also worries that the new legislation would lead to consolidation of the industry, putting her and other “mom and pop” driver’s ed schools out of business.

“This feels like it’s being pressured by big business,” she said.

Jasinski said there are ongoing negotiations with stakeholders with an eye toward improving the bill. Given the current bill’s text, Jasinski said he understands why small business owners like Giessler are concerned it could cost them their jobs.

Jasinski said that legislators are committed to addressing those concerns before the bill passes. One idea is to add a provision that would require online driver’s ed providers to also have a brick and mortar storefront in Minnesota.

Draheim doesn’t believe the change will have as large of an impact as some may fear, given that online driver’s ed is already legal for students age 18 and over. In addition to those with busy schedules, he said the option could be particularly beneficial for rural students.

“We have parents who are driving all over the state to get their kids to class,” he said.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew. © Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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