Katy Martens looks into her computer camera and greets her virtual audience. She begins a yoga session with essential oils.
She is in her backyard in Sayner, surrounded by a forest of changing colors.
Most of their audience is where Martens lived just six months ago, in the greater Milwaukee area.
She and her family moved to Vilas County, and her students stayed with her virtually.
“It just so happened that I could do this from anywhere. Sayner is great. It’s our family home, ”she said. “It’s better for the kids. At this point it was a no-brainer. “
The Martens family is just one of dozen families that are an unforeseen outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic. You leave urban life behind. Instead, they work remotely in the Northwoods, enrolling their children in local schools, and developing roots in the area.
Martens’ great-grandfather built the house in the woods in 1925 and has been in the family ever since.
“There are a lot of memories here. There are many wonderful memories. It was always a vacation spot, ”she said. “But it’s home now.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Wisconsin in March, Martens and her husband Will decided to flee the suburbs of Milwaukee and head north to join Katy’s naturopathic and yoga business, Wellness Compass.
“Coronavirus was kind of a catalyst that went, ‘We’re going to do this. We’re going to do this,” Katy said.
The home is gifted with good broadband, a necessity for business.
Will hauls a modem and router outside the home for each class, and Katy teaches remote classes from her port in Northwoods.
“Yes, [the students are] in town but they can see [my setting]. They even commented that they heard the birds, ”she said.
The couple have a fifth year, Ellie, and a first year, Karlo.
They gave up residence in a prime suburb, Shorewood, and enrolled her with Northland Pines this fall. Both attend the Eagle River Elementary School.
At first, Katy was hesitant about the quality of rural schools. But Will said Northland Pines won her over.
“Thank goodness the schools up here are really good. This is something that many people south of here may not understand. But they’re really good and the kids are fine, ”Will said.
It’s a pitch that Northland Pines Superintendent Scott Foster has made successful lately.
“I think they’re just really surprised that you have all of this and still live in God’s land,” said Foster.
Northland Pines offered families three learning options this year, including virtual and remote options. But the majority, including the Martens family, still wanted their children to come in person.
The district has about 60 new students this year, up from the usual 20 or 30. Foster said at least half of those students are from families like the Martens: seasonal residents who have chosen to stay in the north due to the pandemic.
“We have always been proud and marketed that we can offer everything that any other school can offer. It might be a slightly different offer to the way we do it, but we will also give you a feel for a small school where we know your child’s name. You can take part in top quality activities, whether it’s arts, sports, music or theater, ”he said.
Many of these families rely on upgrading broadband in the area to work remotely.
“It just got real. I think the world of work has changed so some of these families can now work up here, ”said Foster. “That was a big game changer.”
Remote work was a “game changer” for the Boll family, whose house is between Phelps and Land O’Lakes.
Laura Boll’s husband works for a Fortune 500 company based in Chicago and will be away from the Northwoods during the pandemic.
The family wouldn’t be here without broadband.
“Without the Internet? No way, ”said Boll.
The Bolls lived in the Chicago suburbs with their two children. The pandemic ended normal life this spring.
“The whole Parkviertel is closed. Each class closed. Ballet canceled. All of our playgroups have canceled. The group of mothers at church that we went to every week closed everything, ”said Boll.
They sought refuge in their vacation home on Kildare Lake in March. The house is in a group of four people by the lake who belong to their extended family. Boll’s husband’s great-grandmother bought the oldest in the 1930s.
“We came here during the week [the pandemic shutdowns happened]I think maybe we’ll be here for a couple of weeks to a couple of months, ”said Boll.
But spring continued to bleed well into summer, the virus persisted, and the Bolls let the lease on their Chicago rental home expire and adopted the Northwoods as their new home.
Boll enrolled her elementary school students Abby and Stephen at Land O’Lakes Elementary in the Northland Pines district.
She loves that there are only 45 students in the entire school.
“It’s such an ideal school situation because the school is so small,” she said. “It’s not like elementary schools in the suburbs of Chicago, where there are five kindergarten classes and 600 kids.”
If Boll’s husband can continue to work remotely in the future, the family wants to leave Chicago behind and bring the Northwoods home for good.
“It’s a serious possibility,” she said. “Definitely a serious option.”
Right now the kids are getting used to a new school and life in the Northwoods.
It’s a shift, just like the one that accelerated the pandemic for so many families.
“You will find friends. You will adapt, ”she said. “We all probably are.”