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Digging Deeper: driver’s ed students spin their wheels during pandemic

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PEORIA (WEEK) - As schools settle in for the school year, online or in-person with social distancing and face masks, there's an important high school class that can't be done remotely or even six-feet apart.

During the initial COVID-19 shutdown in the spring, driver's education, like nearly everything else, hit the brakes. While behind-the-wheel instruction returned in June, the ongoing pandemic has left its mark. Students can still learn to drive, but to do so, they'll have to navigate some new twists and turns.

"This is a new experience, something I never thought would have happened," said Metamora Township High School driver's ed teacher Mike Brockhouse.

"It was completely unforeseen. Nobody could predict what happened," said Doug Burgess, owner of Burgess Driving School.

Driver's ed teachers like everyone else in the U.S. had to scramble when many states went into lockdown in the spring. With that lockdown came an end to a key component of driver's ed...the actual driving.

"First drive day finished and we were shut down completely, and students were left hanging," said Brockhouse.

When his Metamora students were able to at least continue with the classroom phase, Burgess' business stalled out.

"We couldn't open, we had never opened, we were not a licensed business because all of our paper was sitting on the desk," Burgess said.

Burgess had planned to open his driving school in May, but had to push back his opening as the state stopped processing the licenses that he needed to legally operate.

By June, restrictions were loosened, and behind-the-wheel training was able to resume, but with some new rules of the road.

"They are required to wear masks, we clean the vehicle, Lysol it down after every student drives," said Steven Price, a driver's ed teacher at Normal West High School.

In Metamora, Normal, and at Burgess Driving School, cars are cleaned between each driver. In Metamora, there are temperature checks every time a new driver enters the car.

As for the classroom portion of driver's ed, Price says he's teaching his course online at Normal West.

"We're restricted right now, so I think our goal is, again, making sure these students feel comfortable about the opportunities, and knowing how to access the information, and then using their voice to ask and speak up," said Price.

Metamora High and Burgess Driving School will continue in person for both the classroom and the driving phase, adhering to social distancing guidelines.

"My classroom becomes the auditorium where we try to space kids at least six feet apart wearing masks," Brockhouse said.

"We do pay attention to social distancing, mask wearing, cleaning procedures and all wife and I, in between classes we get out the scrubbers, we get out the alcohol wipes and wipe down everything," said Burgess.

With all the safety measures in place, the instructors say they're confident everyone can stay healthy and teens can remain on track to earn the most coveted piece of plastic known to high schoolers, a driver's license.

Andy Weber

Howard Packowitz

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