Katy Martens looks into her computer camera and greets her virtual audience, starting a session of yoga with essential oils.
She’s in her backyard in Sayner, surrounded by a forest of changing color.
Most of her audience is where Martens lived just six months ago, the greater Milwaukee area.
She and her family moved to Vilas County, and her students stayed with her virtually.
“It was just like, I can do this from anywhere. Sayner’s awesome. It’s our family house,” she said. “It’s better for the kids. It was kind of a no-brainer then, at that point.”
The Martens family is just one of dozens of families illustrating an unforeseen result of the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re leaving behind urban living. Instead, they’re working remotely in the Northwoods, enrolling their children in local schools, and developing roots in the area.
Martens’ great-grandfather built the home in the woods in 1925, and it’s been in the family ever since.
“There’s a lot of memories here. There’s a lot of great memories. It was always a vacation place,” she said. “But now, it’s home.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic hit Wisconsin in March, Martens and her husband, Will, decided to escape the Milwaukee suburbs, come north, and go all in on Katy’s natural healing and yoga business, Wellness Compass.
“Coronavirus was sort of that catalyst that was like, ‘We’re doing this. We’re going to do this,’” Katy said.
The home is blessed with good broadband, a necessity for the business.
Will lugs a modem and a router outside the house for every class, and Katy teaches remote classes from her Northwoods haven.
“Yes, [the students are] in the city, but they can see [my setting]. They’ve even commented they hear the birds,” she said.
The couple has a fifth-grader, Ellie, and a first-grader, Karlo.
They gave up residence in a top-rated suburban district, Shorewood, and enrolled them at Northland Pines this fall. Both attend Eagle River Elementary School.
At first, Katy was hesitant about the quality of rural schools. But Will said Northland Pines won them over.
“Thank goodness the schools are really good up here. That’s something that maybe a lot of people south of here might not understand. But they’re really good, and the kids are doing well,” Will said.
It’s a pitch Northland Pines Superintendent Scott Foster has been successfully making a lot lately.
“I think they’re just really surprised that you can have all this and still live in God’s country,” Foster said.
Northland Pines offered three learning options to families 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 decided to stay north because of the pandemic.
“We’ve always prided ourself and marketed ourself that we can offer anything that any other school can offer. It might be a little different offering as to how we do it, but we’re also going to give you a small-school feel where we know your child’s name. They can participate in top-notch activities, whether it’s arts, sports, music, or drama,” he said.
Many of those families rely on improving broadband in the area to work remotely.
“It just became real. I think the world of work has changed, so some of these families now are able to work from up here,” Foster said. “That was a huge 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 Chicago-based Fortune 500 company, doing it remotely from the Northwoods during the pandemic.
Without broadband, the family wouldn’t be here.
“Without internet? No way,” Boll said.
The Bolls lived in the Chicago suburbs with their two children. The pandemic shut down their normal life this spring.
“The whole park district closed. Every class closed. Ballet canceled. All of our play groups canceled. The moms group at church we went to every week, everything shut down,” Boll said.
They sought refuge at their vacation home on Kildare Lake in March. The home is in a cluster of four on the lake owned by their extended family. The great-grandmother of Boll’s husband bought the oldest one in the 1930s.
“We came up here the week that [the pandemic shutdowns happened], thinking, maybe we’ll be here for a couple weeks to a couple months,” Boll said.
But spring bled into the summer, the virus didn’t subside, and the Bolls let the lease on their Chicago rental home expire, embracing the Northwoods as their new home.
Boll enrolled her elementary schoolers, 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 the elementary schools in the Chicago suburbs, where there’s five kindergarten classes and 600 kids.”
If Boll’s husband can keep working remotely into the future, the family wants to leave Chicago behind and make the Northwoods home for good.
“That’s a serious possibility,” she said. “Definitely a serious possibility.”
For now, the kids are getting accustomed to a new school and a new life in the Northwoods.
It’s a shift just like the one the pandemic has accelerated for so many families.
“They’ll make friends. They’ll adjust,” she said. "All of us, I guess, are.”