How the Coronavirus is Changing the US Census

For everyone cooped up and quarantined, the government – make that, all governments, from the federal down to your city or town – has an assignment for you. 

Think of it as an activity, if you will: Fill our your census questionnaire. 

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Invitations to participate started going out March 12 and are supposed to arrive by Friday. 

For the first time, the nine-question survey is widely available online, in English as well as 12 other languages that the U.S. Census Bureau says should allow for 99% of the American population to complete it. 

“The 2020 census is online and everyone can be counted online,” Marilyn Sanders, the census’s regional director for Chicago, said in a March 12 interview. 

That was before schools closed, there were bans on even mid-sized gatherings and before Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned of consequences should anyone who is sick go to work or hang out in public. 

Since then, the Census Bureau has made changes in the face of the new coronavirus.

But even then, Sanders emphasized the perk of filling out the questionnaire via the internet, by phone or by mailing it in. 

“Going online and completing the census prior to the knocking on doors will help us in terms of getting a complete and accurate count,” she said. 

That’s because if households do not respond by those means, individuals contracting with the agency will go door-to-door to encourage compliance and help get the job done – a task that could prove unhealthy or impossible depending on how the coronavirus crisis unfolds.

Given the COVID-19 outbreak, the Census Bureau is suspending its field operations until April 1. 

“It has never been easier to respond on your own, whether online, over the phone or by mail – all without having to meet a census taker,” the bureau says in a news update on its website

The census also has to adapt how it counts university students who live on or near their college campuses. 

“We want to make sure that of course the census provides things like fire, roads and so we count students where they are in school because that’s where they receive their services,” Sanders said. 

But most Illinois universities have sent students home for the spring semester, and have even canceled graduation ceremonies. 

The Census Bureau website says: “In general, students in colleges and universities temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 virus will still be counted as part of this process. Even if they are home on census day, April 1, they should be counted according to the residence criteria which states they should be counted where they live and sleep most of the time.” 

The Census Bureau says, per its methodology, that means they should be counted at school, even if they’re living elsewhere during the pandemic. The bureau is asking university liaisons to proactively reach out to off-campus students.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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