WEST FARGO — It's been nearly two months since Jon Dondoneau, owner of Elite Steering Driving School, was forced to put the brakes on behind-the-wheel driving lessons.
He had only just begun offering driving lessons in addition to his online coursework when North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum ordered all nonessential businesses to close in March in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The Horace, N.D., native hopes to get things rolling again when he resumes taking appointments Saturday, May 16.
Dondoneau will wear a mask and recommends drivers do as well. Anyone with a temperature of over 100.4 will be asked to reschedule. He said the car will also be completely sanitized between drivers.
A few different factors motivated the Sheyenne Middle School special education teacher to launch his own driving school.
He first began teaching driver's education in the public schools in 2011.
"At that time, I was working at a middle school, so there were lots of kids talking about getting their driver's license," he said.
Losing a family member in an automobile accident motivated him as well.
"I just had a couple different factors there. It was a popular topic in school, and then that happened in my personal, family life," he said.
Dondoneau said 95% of public schools offer driver's education for two to three weeks in the summer. He saw value in starting a year-round driving school so students could practice driving during different weather conditions.
"Those (public school) students don't get any benefit of the whole rest of the year. What the spring looks like. What the winter looks like. It was an opportunity for me to really offer that," he said.
Presently, the only way for students to get behind-the-wheel training is through a private business like Dondoneau's due to a March 22 executive order from Gov. Doug Burgum's office that directs schools to continue distance learning throughout the remainder of the school year.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler said local school officials are still looking for the best way to offer courses such as driver's education.
"The Governor's Executive Order does restrict access to school buildings to students, but most schools still plan to teach the classroom portion of driver's ed through distance learning if the EO (executive order) remains in place, and will determine what to do with the "Behind the Wheel" portion of the class at a later date," Baesler said in an email Friday, May 8.
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Dondoneau launched Elite Steering Driving in January. The following is a brief description of the courses offered:
- Six-hour online permit course: Dondoneau goes through North Dakota's Department of Motor Vehicle handbook. He emphasizes different areas that are covered on the test and explains the reasons behind those rules.
- Thirty-hour classroom training course: The course is delivered using a video-centric, mobile-friendly platform. It is similar to what is offered in schools, but students are able to complete the course at their own pace.
- Six-, 10-, and 15-hour practical driving (or behind the wheel) experiences.
Coming soon is a two-hour online parent instructor course that will advise parents on how to teach their children how to drive.
For Dondoneau, the key to teaching students to drive is patience.
"One of the things I think that has helped me with my profession is I have a lot of patience. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've been nervous with someone else behind the wheel," he said.
He also teaches students to be patient with themselves.
"Sometimes I would say one of the best pieces of advice is to be patient with yourself and don't freak out. People overcorrect or they do something that is really dangerous like slam on the brakes instead of the brake or vice versa," he said. "Just stay calm even if things aren't going well. People are going to honk at you. It's OK."
Amy Jacobson, West Fargo, said her 14-year-old daughter has been working her way through the online course and taken two behind-the-wheel lessons from Dondoneau.
"I think the content itself is very impactful. The one day she finished, she said, 'Oh my gosh, that is scaring me.' That's not a bad thing. I just think it provides realistic things about driving and that you have to be careful and mindful," she said. "It's been a really good experience for her so far."
Jacobson said she also appreciates that students who complete the course may qualify for a waiver for the DMV driver's test.
Dondoneau said that students who complete the 30-hour driver's ed online course and have a minimum of six hours behind the wheel can opt out of the DMV driver's test as long as they pass a proficiency test.
"The last part is that during that behind-the-wheel time that the instructor give a driver's proficiency test. They have to basically complete all the tasks without instructor help," he said.
"Instead of going to the DMV to take a driver's test, that waiver will equate to her driver's test," Jacobson said. "She'll always be comfortable driving with him, so it's not going to be this nerve-racking experience."
For more information, search for Elite Steering Driving School on Facebook.