Polygamous Utah Town Faces Unique Challenges Amid Pandemic

May 8, 2020, 10:00 PM | Updated: Jul 13, 2023, 2:16 pm

HILDALE, Utah – Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the polygamous town on Utah’s southern border is struggling with unique economic and educational challenges.

“We want them to be in school again,” said Hildale resident Ross Chatwin about his five children who attend public schools. “We don’t feel like they are getting as good as education at home as they would be getting in school.”

Chatwin has some of the same worries as parents across Utah — like his high school senior not getting a normal graduation — but said that quarantine life in the once closed off-community is especially difficult.

“Lack of computers, lack of internet service. You know the service is not that great here anyway,” he explained. “If too many people get on the internet at the same time right here then it bogs down and gets really slow.”

Hildale and its twin city of Colorado City, Arizona, on the Utah-Arizona border were once controlled by Warren Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. While still the leader of the church, Jeffs’ power over the residents has diminished as he sits behind prison bars in Texas.

“As time goes on, you hear the name, ‘Warren Jeffs’ less and less,” Chatwin said.

Chatwin left religion nearly two decades ago said the enclave has undergone tremendous change in that time.

“A lot of the families that were supporting Warren Jeffs have now moved away,” he said. “The people that are here don’t really have any fondness for Warren Jeffs anyway. They don’t want to even talk about him.”

While there’s a lot of change going on, the poverty in Hildale has remained constant. Chatwin said existing problems have been intensified by the shuttering of the businesses and schools during the pandemic.

“There’s a lot of people that are jobless,” he said. “We’re economically struggling here, and we were before. Now it just made it 10 times worse.”

At the two Utah public schools in Hildale, 100 percent of the students have been on free and reduced lunch, according to district officials.

“You’ve gone from a very low income to zero income,” said Steven Dunham, director of communications for the Washington County School District. “When you drive through those streets of Hildale, it’s very clear that this is a community that is struggling.”

A sign marking the entrance to Hildale in Utah, from Colorado City in Arizona. (FILE) An aerial view of the town of Hildale. Hildale resident, Ross Chatwin Water Canyon Elementary School Water Canyon High School

The district withdrew from the community in 2000 after Jeffs instructed his followers not to attend public school. The district reopened the elementary school in 2013 and added a high school in 2016.

Washington County currently serves 624 students between Water Canyon Elementary and Water Canyon High School, which stand next to a gated compound once belonging to Jeffs.

Shifting education to the home during the pandemic was also an issue for a town that went more than a decade without a public school.

“It has really been a challenge because what we found is that many of our high school students have had to help their elementary student (siblings) with their learning at home. They’ve become the de facto educators in the home to help their siblings,” Dunham said. “That’s a big burden to throw on these high school students.”

“It’s really been a struggle for a lot of our students out in Water Canyon, specifically,” Dunham went on to say. “I know there’s many students that are behind on their classes and we are working diligently with them.”

Families were also struggling to find access to enough computers and reliable internet service.

“A lot of the teachers want to have their live interviews with the children here all at the same time and there’s not enough computers to around,” Chatwin said. “So it’s really a hard struggle.”

The district reports that about 54 percent of students do not have internet connectivity to do their school work.

For families without internet, paper packets have been distributed as an alternative.

Chatwin said he’s looking forward to summer and then fall, and he was hopeful school will be back in session by then.

“We have been getting by,” he said. “It’s been working, but barely.”

Washington County School District officials said they’re trying to prepare for the fall, should schools have to close again. They have been working to improve internet access for students in Hildale, with the possibility of additional Wi-Fi and mobile hotspots.

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Polygamous Utah Town Faces Unique Challenges Amid Pandemic