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On the road again: Driving schools are back in business

Phase 2 of Massachusetts’ reopening means local driving schools started up again last week, but not without extensive safety precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Many students in town attend either Chelmsford Auto School, Nashoba Valley Auto School, or Central Mass Safety Council (CMSC) for driver’s education and road lessons. All three schools reopened for road lessons Monday, June 8, but had been holding online driver’s education classes while the schools were closed.

Bromfield sophomore Zach Schoenberg, who took driver’s education at CMSC, said that three hour-long classes were held over Zoom and followed the usual course of instruction with students watching videos, taking notes, and following along with a workbook. Schoenberg told the Press he didn’t think his learning experience was too different with classes moving online. “I felt that I was able to learn effectively and that it being online did not really affect me,” he said.

Although in-person classes are now allowed (provided certain safety protocol is followed), in an interview with the Press, a spokesperson from Chelmsford Auto School said that instructors will continue to hold online driver’s education classes until the state says they are no longer allowed to do so. This is because, the spokesperson explained, the school would only be able to hold a class of about six students, compared to the usual 20 to 30, in order to comply with state regulations. These local driving schools also claim that they will hold students’ places in their schedules for those who had registered for road lessons prior to the pandemic.

In order to reopen, driving schools must follow a strict set of guidelines set by the state to ensure proper social distancing and safety precautions, as well as develop a “COVID-19 Prevention Plan.” According to the standards listed on Mass.gov, Massachusetts mandates that social distancing of 6 feet be maintained whenever possible, and class sizes (if held in person) be limited to less than “40% of maximum room capacity.” Furthermore, hygiene protocols require access to sanitizer, facilities for handwashing, and cleaning supplies; the disinfecting of rooms and equipment; no food in classrooms or vehicles; and signs reminding everyone of these guidelines.

During their temporary closing, driving schools had been disinfecting their classrooms and cars and setting new health and safety guidelines to get ready for reopening. According to CMSC’s website, they cleaned their offices and vehicles before reopening, hired 15 new instructors to better keep up with the demand for lessons, and trained staff in “prevention protocol” for COVID-19. Schoenberg added that CMSC is now starting to open up available drive times, but is waiving student observation.

Catching up

Despite the ongoing virus, registration for driving schools is not any lower than usual. The spokesperson from Chelmsford Auto School said the demand is about the same, if not higher than before. “We’re trying to make up for canceled time, and have about a month, month and a half booked,” he said. That being said, the auto school’s biggest concern is “catching up.” 

The spokesperson reported a backlog of previously scheduled road lessons as well as many students who are now waiting to begin. The school is currently trying to schedule these lessons and “keep everyone happy.”

The way in which road lessons will operate has changed, however. According to the state guidelines, Massachusetts driving schools can have only one student and instructor in a car at a time, whereas in the past, a second student often rode along for observation. According to Nashoba Valley Auto School’s website, “Student observation time has been suspended by the RMV [Registry of Motor Vehicles].” Nashoba has also stopped picking up and dropping off students at their homes, instead setting locations based on the town students live in. For Harvard, the location is 323 Littleton Road in Westford.

Face masks for all

Moreover, the guidelines state that everyone in the vehicle must wear a face mask, the vehicle must be disinfected between uses, and it is encouraged that windows be left open. The Chelmsford Auto School spokesperson said the school is following the state’s recommendations, as well as “setting [its] own policies based on that,” emphasizing the required use of face masks and the cleaning of each car with bleach-based products between lessons.

The state guidelines also outline what driving schools should do if a worker or student tests positive for COVID-19. Massachusetts mandates that staff must stay at home if sick, and recommends that anyone “particularly vulnerable to COVID-19” stay home as well. Students and instructors must be screened for symptoms of COVID-19 before lessons; and driving schools should keep a log of students, instructors, and visitors so that contact tracing can be done if necessary. The state also mandates that staff who test positive must report it to the driving school so measures can be taken for cleaning and contact tracing, and the school can be temporarily shut down for disinfecting.

According to the RMV website, road tests were allowed starting Wednesday, June 10, prioritizing appointments of those who had scheduled a test prior to the pandemic. Furthermore, the RMV is allowing students who turned 16 between March and May to take their permit tests online and has extended the expiration date of learner’s permits to December if the permit was set to expire between March and August. According to the website, “This extension will allow additional time for permit students and driving schools to complete in-car instruction and a road test when those functions are authorized to restart safely.”

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