Driving school finds success with students during pandemic

When schools closed their doors on March 15 due to the coronavirus pandemic, so did most driver education programs. Through perseverance and planning, Open Road Driving School was able to total 9,216 hours behind the wheel from May to August with zero outbreaks.

Ryan Turner, who co-owns the company with his wife, Jenny, said when the CDC said groups needed to be limited to a size of 40, the decision was made to close the program temporarily.

“We didn’t know what to do,” he said.

The Turners, who have multiple locations across southeast Iowa, decided they would open Iowa City classes again on March 30, then April 15, then April 30 after the CDC guidelines continued to change. In the middle of May, the decision was made to resume classes in the more rural locations of Pekin and Sigourney.

“At that point those counties had maybe one or two cases,” he said.

By June, classes were able to resume in Iowa City, Burlington, Washington, Kalona, Cedar Rapids and West Branch.

From May 15 to Aug. 9 the company served 768 students across seven counties without a single case of COVID-19.

It was a challenge, Ryan said, but one they were able to conquer. Before students got in the car, they were asked if they knew anyone with COVID-19 and if they had been exposed. For those that said yes, they were asked to come back a different day.

Although the outcomes were uncertain, Ryan said he felt the company did its part to assist students in learning this life skill while keeping them as safe as possible.

“We felt like we were able to safely administer drivers ed, get the job done and be successful in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “We did our part and felt like we had a really successful season.”

According to the DOT, new drivers must have 30 hours of classroom instruction and 12 hours behind the wheel. In the spring, online classes were opened and students were able to complete their required instruction virtually.

Co-owner Jenny Turner said this was a big adjustment for her especially, because she usually teaches the in-person classes. Not being able to be with the students in class to connect with them was a hard adjustment to make, she said.

“I think it’s really just a new attitude and adjustment that the connection point with the kids is in the car,” she said.

All classes will remain online for the foreseeable future, but in-person driving instruction will continue. Ryan said although the changes were difficult, it was worth it to see how many students appreciated the effort.

“I can’t tell you how many kids said to us on our final drive, ‘I’m so bummed drivers ed is ending,’” he said, noting it was not because they would miss the actual class but because it provided a sense of normalcy.

Ryan said the comments made him feel the extra work was worth it if they could assist in improving the mental health of their students, one disinfected and safe ride at a time.