Census Bureau Adapts to Coronavirus Outbreak

By: - March 16, 2020 12:00 am

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As the coronavirus pandemic shutters college dormitories and restricts access to other institutional housing such as nursing homes and homeless shelters, the U.S. Census Bureau is scrambling to keep its 2020 count accurate.

The bureau is postponing some mobile help sessions with the 2020 census questionnaire. They were to be held in public gathering places March 30, after forms arrive in the mail. The help sessions will be postponed until mid-April.

With many college dorms closing this week, the bureau is asking colleges to consider filling out forms for those students based on their records, the bureau said in a statement. Many colleges and universities already do that, but about a third planned to drop off forms in dorm rooms for students to fill out themselves, which won’t be possible if dorms are closed.

Some institutions such as nursing homes and homeless shelters requested in-person visits by census staff; the bureau has asked them to consider either having the institution fill out the forms using their records, or accepting dropped-off forms that residents can fill out, to minimize contact between residents and census staff.

The bureau also is postponing in-person follow-up visits to residents of off-campus housing near colleges, initially planned for April 9, to catch them before the end of school. Those visits will now start April 23.

The changes are good for college towns, because they’ll help ensure that the entire student population is counted even if they’re scattered by the pandemic closures, said Terri Ann Lowenthal, a Connecticut-based census consultant who assisted with the changes in college policy.

“Expanded communications will be needed to get the word out, and state and local officials can help with that,” Lowenthal said.

Rebecca Tippett, North Carolina’s state demographer, announced changes earlier this month, advising college students leaving dorms because of the pandemic to use the college address for their census response if they’re not counted collectively by the school.

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Tim Henderson
Tim Henderson

Tim Henderson covers demographics for Stateline. He has been a reporter at the Miami Herald, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Journal News.