Driver’s ed students returning to in-car learning

Jeff Gravatt, a driving instructor for Caesar Rodney High School, hits the road with Joslyn Kaiser, right, and Jemeire Perry, observer. Mr. Gravatt said that both students completed their driving and observation hours this past week and received blue slips Thursday. They were the first group to receive blue slips from the school since COVID-19 halted in-person driving instruction. With added precautions, students are now able to get back behind the wheel. (Submitted photo)

DOVER — Gov. John Carney has let up on the brakes for driver’s education, allowing students back behind the wheel for the first time since schools closed in mid-March.

In guidance last week, Gov. Carney signed a modification to his state of emergency mandate, allowing no more than two students and a teacher together in the car for behind-the-wheel instruction.

Other guidelines note that everyone in the vehicle must wear face coverings and should wash their hands before and after getting out of the car. Instructors should “maintain airflow in the car” by opening windows as much as possible. When not in the car, individuals should follow social distancing by at least 6 feet.

Cars should be disinfected between each student driver, if feasible.

Creative solutions for what is permitted within the guidelines has been a theme for driver’s education since school buildings first closed.

This summer, Capital School District rolled out Zoom driver’s education classes to address the instructional component for three hours a day. The district provided devices for students who didn’t have them, said Dr. Courtney Voshell, principal for Dover High School.

On Monday, Dr. Voshell began working with the teacher and a driving instructor to start scheduling students per the guidance from the state.

But there are still the students who completed their instruction last marking period and weren’t able to get behind the wheel due to school closures. Those students, along with the 80 or so in summer driving school, will start their driving experience soon.

“Ultimately, this is still like a black cloud leaning over from last school year, unfinished business if you will, so we’re excited to be able to say, ‘OK, let’s put a bow on this to be able to move on to the next group,’ ” Dr. Voshell said.

The protocol of cleaning and sanitizing is pretty standard, she said, but the heat presents some challenges with mask-wearing and windows down.

“But I think the kids are going to do whatever they need to do to be able to drive,” she said.

In May, the state had released guidance for proctoring written exams for driver’s education. The district brought in groups of about 10 to take the test outside. Dr. Voshell imagines this cohort will have a similar experience.

Students at Caesar Rodney High School had already completed the test, but they were unable to get in the car with instructors. During the closure of school buildings, instructors filmed videos tackling parking lot driving, merging, parallel parking and more, said Jeff Gravatt, a driver’s education teacher.

With the governor’s OK, the district plans to start driving kids next week, he said in an email.

The main focus is catching up with the students who have turned 16 since March and getting students behind the wheel, he said.

In Milford, the high school had initially planned on not having an exam until restrictions loosened, but ultimately had a small group of students come in to take their test in three, socially distanced sessions.

With a couple students close to the end of their driving experience, Don Parsley, an instructor, had the students go through a driving range to receive their blue slips.

In that process, Mr. Parsley stood outside the vehicle, while the student and a parent completed a closed-circuit driving course that helped them hone in on skills.

As the student navigated his instructions, he would be there for critiques and assistance.

“It worked out really well,” he said. “I was skeptical of the driving range initially; I don’t necessarily like it for a first-time driver who’s not had any experience with the instructor. But both of these students were near the end, and they had very limited time that they needed in the car, and that allowed me a legitimate way to provide them with the opportunities they needed, so I could go ahead and get them their blue slips.”

The guidance for behind-the-wheel instruction is similar to what instructors have done before, he added, though having the windows down is the most difficult rule to adhere to.

“It’s hard to communicate,” he said, adding that when possible — in the parking lot or neighborhoods — windows will certainly be down.

Instructors always carry a canister of wipes to clean the steering wheel and high-touch surfaces — especially during flu season, he said.

The instructors are awaiting the final OK from the district to begin contacting students to get in the car, Mr. Parsley said.

“I’m certainly excited about it,” he said. “I do enjoy my job, and I know that the driving experience is really important and, as a consequence to that, they need to get through the process, and the students want to get their licenses, and I want to do my job, so I can provide them with the opportunity.”