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McHenry County teens seek to wrap driver's education after COVID-19 pandemic

Johnsburg driver's education teacher Wayne Bennett empathizes with his students who are eager to finish their behind-the-wheel training and become legal drivers.

It is an exciting rite of passage for 16-year-olds, one that Bennett, 50, still vividly remembers.

“I sent out a ‘War and Peace’ introduction to my fourth-quarter kids,” Bennett said. “I told them everything about the day I got my license: what the air smelled like, what the sky looked like. I wanted them to know this isn’t something I take lightly. 'I know what it’s like to be you. I know what it’s like to be 16.’ ”

The COVID-19 pandemic has put driver's education, both in high school and private driving schools, on hold since prospective drivers cannot finish their required behind-the-wheel hours.

The Department of Motor Vehicles offices also are closed because of the coronavirus, so some young drivers who have completed their practice hours have not been able to take their tests.

“I was 16 years and a day, and as soon as I had my license, my old man (Glen) was champing at the bit to get me delivering auto parts for him,” Bennett said. “I’m not kidding. Twenty-five minutes after I had my license, I was on my way (from Aledo) to Keithsburg, Illinois, delivering auto parts to Barry’s Standard Station.

"It was a muffler and a tailpipe, in a 1984 Chevrolet Cavalier wagon, with a five-speed manual transmission. I put all that in my story to these kids. I said, ‘Hey, I’ve been where you’re at, and it’s driving me crazy, too.”

Gov. JB Pritzker announced Tuesday that the state was on track to reach Phase 3 of the Restore Illinois plan, which would loosen restrictions and allow more businesses to reopen.

Bennett said he spoke with a person from the Illinois State Board of Education on Tuesday who was “hopeful” that Phase 3 would include allowing young drivers back behind the wheel and possibly open up the DMV offices for tests. If driver's education can restart, it likely will include instructors and students wearing face masks and wiping down the car after each drive, but instructors are prepared for that.

“We’re kind of at a standstill right now because we’re under the order until the end of the month,” Huntley driver's education teacher Cliff Pawlak said. “We basically put a plan in [recently]. If they allow us to get back to things on June 1. We’ll be ready to do behind-the-wheel stuff. We’re about halfway done with our kids from the second semester.”

The state requires six hours of behind-the-wheel instruction, along with six hours of observation from high schools and private driving schools. Normally, students work in pairs with one instructor, with one driving while the other observes until they fill the required time.

Driver's education students were able to complete classroom work via remote learning but not their driving hours.

“We have about 100 kids we need to finish up,” Pawlak said. “They have to get those hours at some point.”

Pawlak said Illinois is one of the stricter states regarding new driver regulations. Two weeks ago, it was reported that Georgia allowed almost 20,000 teenagers to receive their licenses without taking the road test.

Wisconsin is doing something similar, allowing waivers for young drivers who have fulfilled the hours with parents and have a parental or guardian endorsement.

Bennett said that might not be as dangerous at it sounds.

“As long as the kid has been trained, for the most part, I’m going to guess that a student driver’s going to be OK,” Bennett said. “I can only speak for me. When we go to our behind-the-wheel syllabus, if they’re not ready for that next skill, I keep them driving until they are ready.

"Here in Illinois, I would not submit that kid for approval [for a license]. It’s not fair to that kid and everybody else out on the road. I have a pretty good idea if that kid is ready to go. If they are, I submit them for approval.”

Bennett said the driver's education teacher has to submit a student to take the driving part of the test and receive their license.

Caitlyn Parks, a 16-year-old junior-to-be at McHenry West, celebrated her birthday Monday. She has driven almost all the required hours with her parents, Todd and Michele, but cannot take her driving test.

“This whole year I’ve been looking forward to, in the summer, driving around with my friends and going out to eat, and it stinks,” Parks said. “I can’t do that now. It’s just a bummer.”

Parks completed her behind-the-wheel hours with Top Driver Driving School and feels prepared for her test.

“In the beginning, it was a complete train wreck,” she said. “I was obviously very nervous, but it’s gotten a lot better over the months.”

Zayden Beasley, who will be a junior at Crystal Lake South, hopes to be able to take his 2007 Dodge Dakota pickup out by himself after his 16th birthday June 17.

If restrictions are lifted, Beasley can finish his last two drives with Go Slow Driving School and take his test.

“It’s like a block in the road for everything, but definitely with the driver’s license,” Beasley said. “I wish the coronavirus didn’t happen so I could get my drives done and on my birthday get my license. I feel comfortable [behind the wheel]. It might take a couple times on my own to adjust, but I definitely feel comfortable.”

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