Whether people responded before or respond after, Wednesday was Census Day 2020, the date on which everyone in the United States is supposed to be counted in the place where they live.
Census questionnaires were mailed to homes March 12, and many households have since received a reminder card. The local Complete Count Committee is encouraging all households who have not completed the census online or mailed in a census form to do so. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau’s own efforts to follow up have been postponed and its timelines extended for weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A related unforeseen circumstance raises a special worry in Statesboro and other college towns across America. For example, the University System of Georgia switched almost all courses to online-only formats Monday, March 30, and Georgia Southern University helped students who reside on campus move out last week. The census questionnaire asks where individuals resided on April 1.
“I am gravely concerned about COVID-19’s effect on the census, especially as it relates to the city of Statesboro. …,” Mayor Jonathan McCollar said in a phone interview Wednesday.
“We are a college town and a huge portion of our numbers come from the students … and when they returned home it’s a great possibility that they will use that as their residence versus that of the city of Statesboro,” he said, “and the long-term implications this could have for us as it regards funding opportunities, whether it’s at the federal or state level, could really be a hindrance to many of the projects we want to do in the future.”
His concern may be more valid in regard to students who resided in off-campus apartments –already considered a hard-to-reach group – than to those who have now moved out of campus residence halls. Georgia Southern submits an institutional count of students in the residence halls. Called a “group quarters” count by the Census Bureau, this is also the method used for nursing homes and prisons.
Counting them here
GS Director of Communications Jennifer Wise responded to an email asking how and when this was done in regard to the COVID-19 situation.
“We plan to count our on-campus residents as if they were still here and had not been forced home for the rest of the semester,” Wise wrote. “We have not had a chance to do that yet – our deadline is May 2.”
She also sent a link to a March 15 notice on the
Census Bureau website addressing changes in operations “to make sure college
students are counted” despite the coronavirus situation.
“Per the Census Bureau’s residence criteria, in most cases students living away from home at school should be counted at school, even if they are temporarily elsewhere due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the notice states in part.
Another paragraph describes the residence criteria as meaning that students “should be counted where they live and sleep most of the time.”
Georgia Southern officials had previously sent out emails encouraging faculty, staff and students to complete the census. More emails and social media posts were going out, starting Wednesday, encouraging participation and explaining how students should respond, Wise said.
What it affects
The Constitution mandates that a count be made every 10 years for apportioning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives among the states. Detailed results, down to census blocks, are used to determine boundaries of districts that elect members to state legislatures, county commissions, city councils and school boards.
But for many decades now, census results have also been used to guide the distribution of grants and other funding.
The city of Statesboro is currently pursuing federal assistance for a public transit system and developing a plan for community housing improvements, to cite just two topics where census data could factor in funding. Population counts are also used by officials of Bulloch County and its four municipalities when they negotiate shares in two special local option sales taxes, one for transportation and one for other projects.
McCollar said the city will follow the Census Bureau’s lead but that he hopes “some adjustments” will be possible if college and university towns see an undercount because students are away.
“I know that the federal government tends to want to be on a certain timeline as it relates to the census, but I believe under these extenuating circumstances, the logical thing to do is to make those adjustments,” he said.
Even harder to reach
When the Complete Count Committee for Bulloch County and Statesboro was organized in December, U.S. Census Bureau area Partnership Specialist Curtis Woody noted that national test marketing showed that millennials – college students and others in their age group – were the least likely to respond to an online census.
Meanwhile, a special map shown to the committee identified blocks with off-campus student housing as some of Statesboro’s likely low-response or hard-to-count areas. Here as nationally, Hispanic and other immigrant and minority populations were also identified as hard-to-count.
this point, the committee’s in-person efforts to reach these groups are
obviously shut down, as a shelter-in-place order for Georgia residents awaits
Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature. The Census Bureau itself had already suspended all
of its field operations until April 15.
“We’re still going to try to promote and encourage self-response through our social media outlets, our website and just what we can do while respecting what’s going on right now,” said Olympia Gaines, one of two Complete Count Committee co-chairs.
The social media connections and websites used are those of the Bulloch County government and Statesboro City Hall. Gaines is clerk to the Bulloch County commissioners, while the other Complete Count co-chair is Justin Williams, a Statesboro city planner.
Statesboro Regional Library Director Jennifer Durham sent out a notice that, since the library is closed, it is making its parking lot available as a free Wi-Fi hotspot for people to complete the census “from the safety of their cars” from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.