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To comply with social distancing or lockdown rules, the most efficient way to fill out the census is online.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

Although census workers can no longer go door-to-door amid the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 census is still under way online. 

Due to Pennsylvania's state-wide lockdowns and social distancing policies, census takers ceased all in-person interviews in late March, but the United States Census Bureau is hoping to restart field data collection in June. Even though most students have now left Penn's campus, all students should still be counted as living in Philadelphia, or where they would have been living on April 1 had the coronavirus not displaced them, according to the Census Bureau.

Penn will report the number of students who were living in on-campus housing, while students who lived off-campus must count themselves. 

Penn Leads the Vote Co-director and College sophomore Harrison Feinman said the group is working to ensure that Penn students get counted by developing and distributing information online. He said it is important that students are accurately counted, as this census data will affect federal funding Penn receives over the next decade. 

“We are trying to emphasize that it’s really important for students to fill out, because if not, it could seriously hurt the ability of students to receive funding for essential government services,” Feinman said. 

Census Bureau Philadelphia Regional Director Fernando Armstrong wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian that the most efficient way to fill out the census is online. Even before the Census Bureau was aware of the virus, they had already planned to include an online data collection option — the first online application in U.S. census history.

According to Armstrong, 70 million households — over 48% of all households in the U.S. — have responded to the census so far. Armstrong said the Census Bureau officials are hopeful that households will continue to submit their responses via the online form. 

The Census Bureau is now seeking a 120-day extension from Congress to deliver all final apportionment counts, to account for transition to an online format and general disruptions caused by the pandemic.

“Under this plan, the Census Bureau would extend the window for field data collection and self-response to October 31, 2020, which will allow for apportionment counts to be delivered to the President by April 30, 2021, and redistricting data to be delivered to the states no later than July 31, 2021,” Armstrong wrote.  

While there might be a bit of a learning curve for some households, Armstrong believes the online format is more efficient and environmentally sustainable than in the past.

“The 2010 Census required nearly twice as many offices because the fieldwork required a lot of manual, paper-based activity," Armstrong wrote. "Many of these tasks are now automated — significantly reducing our brick and mortar footprint and substantially improving the productivity of our data collection efforts.” 

Despite the advantages of primarily online census counting, College junior and Census Bureau worker Jaywon Kim is concerned that the pandemic will lead to inaccuracies about the college students reported to be living in Philadelphia.

“Now that students have been asked to move back home, and international students are having to return to their home countries, it becomes a lot more likely that these students will not be counted as college students in Philadelphia," Kim said. "This is problematic because even after we leave, there are going to be students that replace us, and now they won't be accounted for for the next 10 years."

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