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Schools Concerned About Effects of Coronavirus on Census Participation


Officials are concerned that the coronavirus crisis will hinder efforts to ensure a complete count on the U.S. Census, which is used to allocate billions of dollars of federal funding to schools.

That's a big deal for the schools and districts, already concerned about low levels of state revenue as the country faces a recession.

The complications with the count come as schools around the country have closed their buildings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Those closures coincide with the few months when many schools planned extensive outreach to families and student projects to encourage participation among populations classified as "hard-to-count." That includes people who don't speak English, tribal groups, residents of rural areas, disabled people, and renters. The most undercounted population nationwide is children under the age of 5, a crucial age group for schools. Children ages 5-9 are the second most undercounted group.

Without in-person classes and community gatherings, that outreach may be difficult or even impossible, especially for families who lack internet access, which were already on the radar of community groups who've encouraged census participation. This year is the first time that households have first been prompted to complete the form online before they receive follow-up outreach to complete phone or paper surveys.

So schools around the country have sought to find new ways to encourage families to participate. Among them: sending messages through remote learning platforms, including census-themed coloring books in take-home packets, tweeting out encouragement from district accounts, and including printed census notices in the grab-and-go free meals they distribute to students during school closures.

How the coronavirus has affected the census

The U.S. Census Bureau has suspended or delayed parts of its outreach efforts in response to the pandemic, halting field operations and extending the counting deadline from July 31 to Aug. 14. 

April 1, National Census Day, is a day the agency uses to publicize the count, and, in general, respondents use their home address on that date to determine where they should be counted. But the effort continues for months, and some federal lawmakers have expressed concern about how the agency will address uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and concerns about person-to-person interactions. Staffing changes have already led to longer wait times at some call centers, and an employee at an Indiana processing center recently tested positive for the virus.

"The Census Bureau has reported that about 36 percent of households have responded to the Census, but certain communities are responding at reduced rates," Democratic leaders of the House oversight committee wrote in an April 1 letter to the agency, pushing for more specifics on its plans. "For example, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials found that online response rates in many heavily Latino communities have been lower than in other communities."

The Census Bureau estimates that about 44.5 percent of households nationwide had completed the census by April 4. You can explore census participation rates at the national, state, county, and city level on the agency's website.

Even as schools and community groups work to encourage participation amid unprecedented circumstances, lawmakers have expressed concerns about various populations:

Photo: a sign at a middle school in Orlando, Fla., reminds residents that April First is census day. The coronavirus has waylaid efforts to get as many people as possible to take part in the census. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

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