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Posted April 1, 2020

What COVID-19 Means for the 2020 Census

The effort to count every American will continue, but with some changes, deadline extensions

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to take hold in the United States, every household across the country was receiving the same piece of mail — instructions on how to complete the 2020 census. 

The effort to count every American will go on, but — like just about everything in 2020 — it will be affected by the global public health crisis. Everything from outreach efforts to the count itself is expected to be impacted.

Everyone living in the United States, whether they are a citizen or not, are asked to indicate where they live on April 1, known as “Census Day.” 

“It’s really important that the students are counted where they are most of the year, and that is our college campuses.”

But because of COVID-19 and ongoing “shelter-in-place” orders, many college students, especially those with on-campus housing, have temporarily moved back in with family or are otherwise displaced. According to Census officials, college students are still supposed to be counted at their college address. 

“It’s really important that the students are counted where they are most of the year, and that is our college campuses,” said Casey Farmer, executive director of the Alameda County Complete Count Committee for Census 2020.

Getting an accurate count of the student population in each county is critical for funding for Pell grants and other services, including disaster recovery, affordable housing and health care. The census affects school funding, can lead to more jobs and is used to determine local government boundary lines. 

“One of the messages we’ve been trying to get to students is that this will affect federal aid,” said Danvy Le, assistant professor of political science. “Now if we don’t have [an accurate count] of students in schools, that will have a huge effect.”

The pandemic is also expected to make the “hard to count” communities even more difficult to reach. Public places such as libraries and senior centers where people could complete the census are closed, and efforts to inform and educate these populations about the importance of the census have been forced to shift very suddenly.

“For Alameda County, we had at least 130 questionaire centers in public spaces and the day we dropped them off, those places needed to close [due to shelter-in-place orders],” Farmer said. “We don’t know how many people were going to use those but I know we needed that infrastructure and we had a ton of momentum from Census volunteers.”

Now, like everything these days, there’s an even bigger emphasis on completing the census virtually. 

Last week the U.S. Census Bureau adjusted operations, extending the deadline to respond online, by phone and by mail, and delaying other efforts, such as the count of the homeless population and door-to-door follow up for those who haven’t yet responded.

With Americans being strongly encouraged to stay at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Census workers may be more likely to encounter residents when they begin the door-to-door phase of the count. But, because of social distancing, some may be less likely to open the door at all.

“I think it’s going to be more of an incorrect count,” Le said.

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