Wiltonians driving through town recently might have seen the return of the familiar green and white Fresh Green Light car on the roads–with a student behind the wheel. Windows cracked open, masks on, and gloved hands gripping the wheel, the student drivers are back on the road, although the return is not without specific steps for care, changes, and control, all with COVID-19 in mind.

“I felt comfortable opening in Phase 2 because I felt the timing was right, but more importantly, there was a really good discussion about what the guidelines were that all of us were going to follow,” Steve Mochel, the CEO of Fresh Green Light Driving School, said.

Safety First

Though teens may be hungry to hit the road, a question remains–can prolonged contact in a confined space be made safe?

“If I didn’t feel confident, we wouldn’t be opening,” Brandon Dufor, CEO and Founder of The Next Street Driving School. “Regardless of the economic impacts, as the leader of the company I would never put my staff in jeopardy and I would never put students in jeopardy.”

Fresh Green Light opened up for driving schools on Saturday, June 20, and Next Street, which in normal times operates lessons out of Wilton High School, opened on Monday, June 22. Both companies have adopted many safety measures to ensure the safety of their staff and students, and both have a phased reopening that allows them to deal with the backlog of canceled lessons efficiently.

For both schools, the student and instructor must wear a mask and a fresh pair of gloves for the entire lesson. Windows must be open or cracked throughout the lesson to increase ventilation in the vehicle, and the lesson will include brief breaks for the people to get out of the car and take off their mask while distancing safely. After every lesson, the car must be thoroughly cleaned with special focus on any items that staff and students touch, such as door handles, gearshift, and seats.

But Wilton driving schools went the extra mile. When planning his guidelines, Mochel consulted the experts, researching guidelines from AAA and the CDC, and communicated his concerns to the CT Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) with a small group of other driving school owners. Moreover, he talked to first responders about what they do if they have a patient with COVID-19 in their ambulance, and how to eliminate traces of the virus from the vehicle.

“We knew that if we did get back into cars we wanted to make sure that our instructors and our students were incredibly safe,” Mochel said, adding that even in normal times they are “hypersensitive” to keeping their cars clean.

The Fresh Green Light lessons are 80-minutes long. Each instructor was tested for COVID-19 before they came back to work, as well, and they ask students to make sure they do not have symptoms or contact with anyone with COVID-19. Moreover, drop off and pick up are done at the Fresh Green Light location, instead of at the student’s home, so instructors can avoid being in the driver’s seat and proper cleaning can be done.

The Next Street started planning for re-opening beginning in early May, devoting seven-weeks to prepare with health and safety as the utmost consideration. In addition to taking the required steps for each two-hour lesson, Next Street also uses disposable seat covers and steering wheel covers. Students also must complete a questionnaire to make sure they are symptom-free and have not been in contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID-19, and align with other requirements such as having been in the country for the past 30 days at minimum.

Remaining Challenges

Both Fresh Green Light and The Next Street Driving School adjusted the classroom portion of their business to online learning quickly in late March, keeping students engaged and progressing through one half of their mandatory pre-road test education despite the pandemic. Classroom lessons will continue to be conducted in this way.

However, this fix did not address the whole issue. In the State of Connecticut, new drivers must complete a mandatory eight-hours of behind-the-wheel lessons with a certified instructor before they take their test. Though lessons took a break, the need didn’t–creating a backlog problem Mochel describes as a “nightmare.”

“I liken it to a haircut–okay, I didn’t have a haircut for three months, I go into the barber, I cut my hair and I’m all caught up,” Mochel said. “[But] we have three months of driving lessons that we have to get caught up on because it’s a requirement. So, if you wanted to get your driver’s license and you didn’t have your driving lessons you were going to do between March and June, you had those canceled and now we have to make them up for you as well as deal with the other [new] customers.”

To deal with these issues, the Next Street Driving School has increased the number of lessons with driving instructors to 3-5 lessons per day. Fresh Green Light cars will typically do five lessons per day as well.

Moreover, Fresh Green Light had 25 road test sessions canceled at their locations throughout Fairfield County–leaving over 400 students with tests to make up. Adding to the complication:  a third of the Fresh Green Light and the Next Street workforce is in the at-risk category, leaving the companies with a need to hire more staff.

“That’s really challenging–we want everyone to have the opportunity to come back to work, but we also are a company that uses empathy, humanity, and compassion as our guideposts, and so we’re also never going to force somebody to come back,” Dufor said.

For the Next Street, this means hiring 20 new driving instructors and at least four new call staff members–a process that can take anywhere from three to eight weeks when accounting for training and DMV certification.

Additionally, both schools are prioritizing the order of driving lessons based on whose lessons were canceled first, and who has been with the company the longest, which can be frustrating for newer students.

“If you’ve been with us the longest then you’re going to get first choice for lessons, but nobody’s happy and I mean that in just a realistic way,” Mochel said. “We’re not happy either, it’s not ideal. Parents are frustrated we’re frustrated and it’s just all out of our control…we’re doing the best we can do. I keep saying, ‘It’s our first pandemic. We’re doing the best we can do.’”

For the Next Street, this means a phased reopening where they plan to get through their backlog by October, possibly sooner. Fresh Green Light is prioritizing scheduling for students who needs lessons before a road test and then accepting new lessons based on when people signed up for the program.

Down the Road

Although enrollment is down and both companies still had to pay fixed costs like car insurance and rent during the shutdown, neither Mochel nor Dufor are worried about their futures.

“One of the things about a driving school is somebody turns 16 every day,” Mochel said, “So now’s a great time to enroll, because you can take care of all your classes online this summer.” He added that at Fresh Green Light once you’re 16 you can start taking the classroom classes via Zoom, even if you can’t get your permit for a while.

While Next Street is dealing with its backlog, they offer an online “Do it Yourself Kit” that students can access to practice on their own until they’re able to get on the schedule.

Both companies are optimistic about the future and are looking forward to returning to the new normal.

“We’re a company that has been built on a very sound foundation of core values,” Dufor said. “We know what we stand for, we know what we believe in and we’ll use those values as our guideposts as we get back to work.”