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Census Bureau Adapts to Coronavirus Outbreak

Census Bureau Adapts to Coronavirus Outbreak
Stateline March16
Students pack up to leave Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as dorms close in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. Census Bureau is rethinking plans to count such students, as well as residents of nursing homes and other institutions where access has been restricted.
Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Read Stateline coverage of the latest state action on coronavirus.

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.

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State Action on Coronavirus

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Stateline Collection

State Action on Coronavirus

Local and state public health officials wield extraordinary powers in emergency situations such as the current coronavirus outbreak. They can close schools and private businesses. They can restrict or shut down mass transit systems. They can cancel concerts, sporting events and political rallies. They can call up the National Guard. They can suspend medical licensing laws and protect doctors from liability claims. And they can quarantine or isolate people who might infect others.

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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Red States Push for Last-Minute Census Advantage

Several blue and red states are in danger of losing congressional seats.

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