Originally published Jan. 10, 2021 in The Day.
By Sten Spinella
Like most physical education teachers, the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to keep students apart posed a challenge for high school teachers Andrew Walker, Zeth Nolda and Megan Gwudz.
Then they had a stroke of inspiration.
“We were going through and cleaning the PE closet, and we found a bunch of old golf clubs, golf grass, golf turf, and we were like, we could use this now given the COVID protocols,” Gwudz said. “Everyone could have their own clubs, clean them after, and we have enough space, so that’s how it started. We just found all the old equipment and decided to use it.”
So they built a mini-golf course that has been a success with students and teachers alike.
The teachers set up a chipping area, a driving range and five holes (a round is two times around), for students to try their luck. They also installed a leaderboard for those who want to track their scores.
The course is holiday-themed and includes water hazards, tunnels, bridges and ramps. Each hole has a name: "The North Pole," "The Putt-Cracker," "Blizzard Beach," "The Putter Express" and "Dashing Thru The Snow."
The effort and resourcefulness in building the course can be seen in its repurposed badminton cans, workout mats, PVC piping from an old goal that was broken, a pitcher's mound outfitted with Styrofoam to increase its size and a litany of seasonal-specific decorations.
"Students' comments are like, 'Boy, you guys are putting a lot of time into this!'" Walker said. "'You guys are working hard doing this.' I think they enjoy it. They see us working hard, and they appreciate what we're doing for them."
While it’s set up for physical education classes, teachers in other courses make requests on occasion to come down with their students if they have three or four students and they’ve finished their work.
“It’s an open invitation for staff. This is a huge field house, and the way we’ve designated the areas, it does allow for a good 25 people with social distancing and making sure masks are being worn,” Walker said. “As PE teachers, we’re creative by nature. Our budgets aren’t huge, so we’re constantly trying to figure out how we can do things. Sometimes we’re doing our own construction. With the equipment that’s been piling up over the years, some of it hasn’t been used in a while, and we put it to use.”
Gwudz said the plan is to include golf and to continue what was started this year in future curriculums. Walker noted when winter sports start, the course will have to be taken down.
Students practice different golfing techniques on the driving range and chipping area. While the mini-golf course has been popular for how purely fun it is — Walker said it has “boosted morale” — the teachers are trying to instill golf fundamentals as well.
“We want them to have fun, but we also want to teach them the proper way to swing, and how to hold the clubs,” Walker said.
Gwudz and the other teachers said the course served as a way to break up the monotony of pandemic life.
“The students are definitely having fun with it. They enjoy coming and doing the course,” Gwudz said. “I think it’s something new and revitalizing because everything seems the same right now.”
Assistant Principal Kirk Samuelson said he was proud of the school’s physical education department for keeping students engaged in learning while adapting the curriculum to address the social and emotional well-being of students. He also mentioned that Miguel Cardona, Connecticut’s secretary of education and President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for U.S. secretary of education, “liked” a tweet from the Waterford Athletics Twitter account about the golf course.
“I think the constant theme this year in education has been to be flexible, like Gumby,” Samuelson said. “Due to the current COVID situation, educators are forced to go outside their normal routine of instructing, and in some cases their comfort zones, to be creative and adapt their lesson design to meet students’ needs while adhering to Health and Safety protocols.”
Nolda mentioned a gratifying moment spawned by the mini-golf course, especially considering that the teachers all said they were surprised by the number of students who had never played golf of any kind.
“I went to the driving range the other day and saw a couple of the students at the range who had been playing in here,” Nolda said. “It was nice to see them take the next step on their own and enjoy the sport.”