The last time Massachusetts tried to count its population the state wound up losing a Congressional seat. This time, Secretary of State William Galvin hopes Massachusetts can avoid a similar fate, even in the face of challenges exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2020 U.S. Census kicked off on Thursday, with postcards in the mail to millions of Massachusetts households informing them of how to take part in the decennial population count - online, by mail, or by phone.

Galvin, however, said widespread fear over the spread of coronavirus and the steps being taken to limit person-to-person contact could make existing challenges, like counting college students and foreign-born residents, that much harder.

The Brighton Democrat is overseeing the state's Census effort for the third time.

"I must confess to you that in the beginning of this process and actually for a long time I've been somewhat skeptical of what the response rate would be online. But in light of the coronavirus situation, online might be a very important part of our response," Galvin told reporters at a press conference to highlight the start of the 2020 counting effort.

He said he hoped people working from home might use that freedom to fill out the Census online.

Galvin also said Thursday the decision of many colleges and universities across the state this week to ask students not to return to campus after spring break "couldn't come at a worse time" for the count and that the virus could impact recruitment of door-to-door canvassers and people's willingness to interact with Census takers.

Counting college students is an integral part of the state's Census effort, and the decision of schools like Harvard, MIT, Boston University and the University of Massachusetts to move exclusively to online learning, and send students home will make it harder to account for them.

The U.S. Census Bureau already accepts administrative records of students living in dormitories, and Galvin said he sent a letter to the Census Bureau asking it to do the same for enrolled students who might live in off-campus housing.

Galvin said he was also worried about the state's ability to convince the more than 1 million foreign-born residents to participate given the anxiety in the immigrant community about interacting with the federal government.

"Whether they're legally present or not, we believe they're here and we know they should be counted," Galvin said.

Galvin said he believes based on academic studies and existing Census data that Massachusetts is home to roughly 6.9 million people. The challenge now is counting all those people.

If the count is successful, Galvin said Massachusetts should not lose another Congressional seat as it did after the 2010 Census, when redistricting consolidated the state's 10 districts into nine, and U.S. Rep. John Olver, of western Massachusetts, announced he would retire.

"Am I concerned? Yes. Every estimate, however, has suggested that we would not, and, in fact, if we prove out that population of 6.9 we would be pretty confident we would not," Galvin said.

The population count not only governs how many seats in Congress the state controls, but dictates the flow of federal money for things like education and transportation that are based on the number of residents in a state or community.

"It's not just about the political representation, which is oftentimes the first thing people think about. It's also about the money and for us in Massachusetts it's particularly important we get the money," Galvin said.

The last Census in 2010 counted more than 6.5 million Bay State residents, a 3.1 percent increase over the previous decade during which the national population grew 9.7 percent. If Massachusetts's population has grown to more than 6.9 million, that would be a more than 6 percent increase in population.

Beginning Thursday, residents could go to and fill out the online form. Paper questionnaires will be mailed to most parts of the state on April 8, though resident of the Berkshires may get them sooner.

Galvin said he expects to get data from the federal government on response rates later this month, which will help him decide how to disperse $1 million in funding for local communities approved by the Legislature to aid the counting effort.

After April, plans call for Census workers to be deployed door-to-door to try to count residents who have not responded online or my mail or by phone.

Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said her group and the state has been doing outreach through schools, universities, health centers and other service providers to reach immigrant communities and make sure they understand the importance of the Census.

"We also have done amazing outreach in faith-based institutions that people go and practice their faith, making sure the message that we want them to get is coming from people they trust," Millona told the News Service.

Millona has chaired the state's 2020 Complete Count Committee, and said that only 185,000 to 190,000 immigrants would fall into the category traditionally referred to as "undocumented." Hundreds of thousands of other immigrants have been naturalized, or maybe have been in the country for decades on temporary protected status.

"Given the rhetoric and everything else going on looking at the foreign-born population as a problem, it's creating reluctance and people are not coming forward out of fear of this mixed status, and fear that every information I give about me might damage my family members at a later time," Millona said.

Galvin dismissed criticism, as reported Thursday by the Boston Globe, that his office has been slow to award millions in funding for non-profits and municipalities to assist with the count.

Galvin said non-profits have been made aware of the grants they can expect to receive, and much of that money will be sent out by the end of the week, while the $1 million set aside by the Legislature in December for municipalities was specifically for communities with low response rates, which won't be known for some time.

"It would be like paying people to be plow drivers in October. You don't do it," Galvin said about the criticism that non-profits should have received the funding sooner.

Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, the executive director of MassVOTE, said her group remains committed to educating residents about the Census and passing an election-day voter registration law. But in the era of coronavirus, Crawford said her group's strategies might have to change.

"We will continue to deliberate with legislators, organize grassroots-based support, and ensure that underrepresented communities have their voices heard," Crawford said. "Yet how we fulfill these tasks may change. Instead of holding in-person meetings with legislators and their staffs, for example, we may simply speak with them on the phone. As opposed to promoting and speaking at large-scale public gatherings, we may encourage that such meetings take place online."

"While these circumstances are far from ideal, they are unquestionably necessary," she said.