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Friday, December 4, 2020
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Census Adjusts for Coronavirus Concerns

UVI Vice Provost Frank Mills. (Photo from UVI website)
UVI Vice Provost Frank Mills. (Photo from UVI website)

The 2020 Census count will resume in the Virgin Islands when it reopens June 1, but with a few changes to accommodate health protections against the spread of the coronavirus.

The biggest difference is likely to be that residents may be given the option of answering the census survey over the phone rather than in person.

At the end of the day Tuesday, local officials were awaiting formal word from federal officials that they approve the request to allow telephonic interviews.

“We don’t have any reason to believe they would oppose that,” said Frank Mills, director of the Eastern Caribbean Center at the University of the Virgin Islands and head of census operations for the St. Thomas-St. John District. “We just want to make sure it’s approved by the Census Bureau itself” before making a formal announcement.

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In fact, at least one other island territory has already gone that route. Guam posted an announcement on its census website early May saying it would provide a telephonic option.

Guam, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the USVI all fall under a special category as far as the decennial census is concerned.

In these so-called “island territories” residents must respond to a long form designed to gather aggregate information on things like housing, income and education levels.

On the mainland and Puerto Rico, residents can respond to the census online or by mail and are required only to fill out a “short form” designed to gather little more than a headcount. For the demographic information on housing etc., the Census Bureau relies on the American Community Survey – a periodic survey of a statistical sample of residents – and extrapolates data from it.

As recently as 2008, Mills said, the Virgin Islands lobbied in Congress to be part of the American Community Survey and thus simplify its census procedure, but the territory was refused on the grounds that it does not maintain a standardized system of housing addresses. It has been working to update that system for several years now.

Whether interviews are conducted over the phone or in person, Mills said census field workers will still visit neighborhoods to verify the addresses of residents.

Work had barely started in March when it was halted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mills said this week census workers are being trained again; some are new hires and others just need a refresher after the weekslong hiatus.

Census enumerators will be equipped with masks and gloves. To avoid any confusion, Mills said they will not approach a house wearing a mask but will put it on once they get a response from the resident.

All enumerators wear clothing marked Census 2020 and carry photo identification. They have IDs from the U.S. Census Bureau and from UVI, which is the local agency designated by the governor to conduct the census.

According to a March 2 news release, the census partners with the local government in each of the island territories to conduct the count. The bureau provides funding, methodology, data collection instruments and materials and IT infrastructure.

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