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People Working From Home Permanently Could Transform Rural America

NOEL KING, HOST:

When people started working from home because of the pandemic, some started working from their second homes. Those tend to be in rural areas, not in cities. And if they stay after the pandemic, they could end up transforming parts of rural America. Here's Sarah Gibson of New Hampshire Public Radio reporting from the Lakes Region.

SARAH GIBSON, BYLINE: For 5-year-old Joanna Shelov, winter in the pandemic has been pretty good.

JOANNA SHELOV: I just - I get to ski a lot, and I do different kinds of skiing.

GIBSON: Like, tell me all the kinds.

JOANNA: Like cross-country, skate skiing a tiny bit on my skis and downhill skiing.

GIBSON: Normally, Joanna and her family live in Philadelphia. But this year, they're hunkering down in their second home - a 230-year-old farmhouse. Their main reason for being here - Joanna and her sister are going to the tiny public school down the road. It's been in-person, five days a week since September as opposed to the Philadelphia school district, which has been largely virtual. Joanna's dad, Eric Shelov, a doctor, saw a lot of his job become virtual, too, so he can work anywhere, even the barn out back, which he opens up for me. Amidst collections of bicycles and boats, Shelov shows me his standing desk.

ERIC SHELOV: We made this out of old barn doors and sawhorses.

GIBSON: Despite the rustic charm, there have been some challenges, like really slow Internet. But Shelov feels fortunate to be able to do this. And the Shelovs aren't the only family in this migration of urban residents to rural New Hampshire. Several nearby schools have seen their enrollments increase as a result. Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire, says this type of influx could give rural towns across the country the boost they need.

KENNETH JOHNSON: The volunteer fire department, the PTA, all the groups affiliated with churches or civic organizations, they all need that energy and enthusiasm of new people.

GIBSON: But Johnson says it's too early to tell if the new people will stick around. Take 25-year-old Trysten McClain. He grew up in New Hampshire but was in New Jersey working as a bartender when the pandemic hit. He lost his job and eventually packed up and drove through the night.

TRYSTEN MCCLAIN: I got back in New Hampshire at 8 or 9 in the morning.

GIBSON: McClain found work at a grocery store, but it hasn't been easy. He says being biracial and Black in this largely white town, he hears racist comments every day. His big solace, he says, is nature.

MCCLAIN: You know, whether it's a quiet hike or going with small little group acting like young 20-year-olds and blasting music and screaming at the top of the mountain (laughter).

GIBSON: McClain is renting an apartment with a childhood friend. But a lot of pandemic arrivals are buying homes, and the real estate market is hot. Massachusetts resident Crystal Gagnon is thinking of upgrading from a small weekend house in New Hampshire where she, her wife and three kids are living. She says her friends back home...

CRYSTAL GAGNON: Some of them think we're nuts. But I do believe that maybe that was the impression at the beginning. But now that we're here, and they see - like, obviously I have Facebook, and our kids talk to their friends still. I think they're actually kind of envious.

GIBSON: Envious of how normal life looks in her corner of New Hampshire because of more relaxed attitudes and fewer restrictions about COVID-19. Gagnon says she prefers the New Hampshire way, so she's sticking around for good. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Gibson.

(SOUNDBITE OF EPIC45'S "THE LANES DON'T CHANGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.