By Graham Schiltz, contributor
Among its many disruptions, the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated plans for wide-reaching efforts to encourage Harrisonburg and Rockingham County residents to fill out their Census forms, especially considering the amount of federal funding at stake.
Social distancing and Gov. Ralph Northam’s “Stay-at-home order” through June 10, which he issued earlier this week, have delayed indefinitely or cancelled many of the in-person Census-related events and strategies that relied on personal contact. That has forced community leaders and advocates to adjust.
“We’ve had to hit the ground with kind of a grassroots effort that’s really different from our original playbook,” said Bradford Dyjak, director of planning in the county’s transportation planning office.
Dyjak said the county has been working with volunteers from nonprofit groups to plaster posters at gas stations, convenience stores and grocery stores that are essential businesses and remain open.
Harrisonburg City Public Schools had begun incorporating lessons about the Census in the classroom, including visits from JMU students working with leaders of the Madison Center for Civic Engagement to spread the word. But Superintendent Michael Richards said part of the idea was to encourage children to get excited about the Census and help inspire their parents to fill out the online form at 2020Census.gov.
Richards said teachers are still trying to pass that message on as they’ve shifted to distance learning.
Meanwhile, the city and county schools had partnered with the Madison Center at JMU and Massanutten Regional Library on a poster contest, which will now shift online and is open to anyone 18 or younger to create a piece of art about the importance of being counted in the Census. The effort, which is being spread through Facebook, will collect submissions through May 1.
Other efforts are even more grassroots.
Rebecca Sprague, Community Program Coordinator for Church World Service in Harrisonburg, said the organization had planned to enlist the help of local high school students, especially those who speak different languages or have ties to different refugee communities in the area. The students had offered to help with translating or navigating the online Census forms.
Because they can’t go door-to-door or help others in person, many of the students have offered to assist through WhatsApp and social media.
Church World Services, which helps with refugee resettlement, also has spread the word through pictures and posters to the Sudanese and Congolese communities in the Harrisonburg area.
Sprague, Richards and Dyjak were among about 30 community leaders and residents who participated Thursday in a virtual town hall meeting about the Census through the online conferencing site Zoom.
In terms of response rate, Harrisonburg and Rockingham County are both just above the national average of 38.4 percent, at 40 percent and 44 percent, respectively. But hard work remains because typically the most difficult groups for cities and towns to accurately get a count for are college students, non-english speakers and children under 5.
“I think we’re doing pretty well and on track, but of course, there’s a lot more to be done,” said Carah Whaley, associate director of the Madison Center for Civic Engagement at JMU. “That’s especially the case with some of the hard-to-count communities.”
To encourage more student responses, James Madison University this week approved a request to use its mass text message service — typically used for emergencies or closure announcements — to remind students to fill out the Census with a link to the online portal.
Census data for those who live in on-campus housing can be electronically transferred directly to the U.S. Census Bureau with the students’ approval. This has led to on-campus students being the highest reporting demographic at about 70 percent. Getting the word out to students living off-campus is more challenging, especially to reinforce that they should be reporting Harrisonburg of Rockingham County (depending on where they live) as their place of residence while going to a university like JMU or EMU.
One point that Rockingham County Schools social studies supervisor Beau Dickenson emphasized was how much funding Harrisonburg and Rockingham county can lose because of those who don’t respond. For every one percent of Harrisonburg residents that don’t respond, it would cost the city $10 million in funding over the course of the 10 years before the next Census in 2030. Federal resources allocated to programs and departments like public transportation and first responders are reliant on these funds.
“If you have a kindergartener right now, the next time that a census is taken to determine the resources that student will receive, they’ll be a sophomore in high school,” Dickenson said. “The potential impact of those dollars will be largely lost.”
While funds for education are generated locally, primarily through property tax, education is also funded through the federal government. Programs free-and-reduced lunches rely on these federal funds, Richards said.
“We wanna keep those programs going at the same level,” Dickenson said. “If we have an undercount, that means that those dollars have to be made up for locally or those programs would have to be reduced.”
Among the city services that rely on federal funding calculated using Census population figures are the bus system, which receives $1.5 million a year determined by the city’s population, said Vice-Mayor Sal Romero. Other federal funds tied to Census results include money for public housing and the training, protective equipment and vehicles for first responders.
Romero said another barrier to the Census has been concern among undocumented immigrants that there would be a question about citizenship. President Donald Trump had called for that but dropped that request last summer in the wake of a Supreme Court finding that Trump’s administration hadn’t adequately made the case for including such a question.
Romero reiterated that the Census in no way asks about citizenship and that every person in the community needs to be counted.
“We want to remind people that everybody counts,” he said. “We have a community that is now living in fear for many different reasons. We want to remind them that everyone counts, whether they’re documented or not … We definitely want to make sure we represent the diversity we share in this community.”
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