Education in the Covid Era: Interview with Anjali Adukia, PhD

Updated: Jan 27

As a way of gaining a better understanding of the BIPOC experience at UChicago, Exploring Race editors conducted interviews with BIPOC faculty. This quarter, the Editorial Staff of Exploring Race chose to discuss the intersection of COVID and race with UChicago professors. This represents the second in the series of interviews. Exploring Race editor Carla Abreu speaks with Professor Anjali Adukia about educational policy and what we can learn from the months of lockdown.

Anjali Adukia is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, as well as at the College. She examines how to reduce inequalities amongst children from historically disadvantaged backgrounds so that they have an equal opportunity to fully develop their potential. Her research focuses on understanding early-life influences that motivate and shape behavior, preferences, attitudes and educational decision-making. She examines how the provision of basic needs can increase school participation and improve child outcomes in a developing context.

Art courtesy of Sanjana Venkittu, @ ssv.art

To begin, do you feel that COVID has impacted your work or your research focuses?


In my work, I'm really interested in understanding the factors that influence educational decisions. I've always been interested in how we can mitigate the inequalities that particular groups face, especially those that are typically underrepresented or haven’t been given the same advantages.

There are important questions about how we are going to reduce and mitigate the severe inequalities and inequities that have been exacerbated because of COVID.

My work initially focused on safety, but it's shifted to notions of justice and representation. My focus on schools in particular is determining that a fundamental need for students is ensuring that you’re treated fairly, that you’re treated as a whole person, that you belong.


Obviously, with COVID, I can't go into schools. That changes the ability to do in-person interviews or work directly with children.


But, there's still a lot that can be done. I think that one thing that the COVID pandemic definitely highlights, for me, is this notion of “What does justice mean?” There are important questions about how we are going to reduce and mitigate the severe inequalities and inequities that have been exacerbated because of COVID. In education, there’s already an issue of accountability. But, what does it mean to have accountability when you have severely unequal access to devices, to quiet spaces, to a stable internet connection, or even to a parent’s ability to be home with a child and answer questions? It makes you think about what the point of education is and the point of the rules that are being imposed? And for educators, why is the focus so often on ways to enforce authority and discipline, as opposed to allowing students to create the most conducive learning environments as possible, especially given the circumstances?


Do you feel that any of the work that you've seen implemented is going to be set back because of COVID? If students can't actually go into the classroom--maybe they're being homeschooled or they're in a place where there's not enough internet connection--what is the impact on education?


For sure, there’s going to be some setbacks in how we’ve improved child education.


But, I do also see some hope in all of this. In Chicago Public Schools, there are some children who learn better on their own and without the stress of peers around them. Or for a child who normally attends a school that is not a very welcoming environment, being at home in a very protective environment can actually help them.

I'm hoping that through all of this, we can reimagine the structures around education.

But this is all contingent on having access to the necessary resources to be able to do what you need to do at school. This goes back to that notion of what accountability means. So, is it that suddenly your home is now your school? Are you now no longer able to feel that you can create your own conducive learning environment? It's really about where educators put their priorities. Where am I going to put my energy? Where do we want educators to put their energy with these students? Is it about whether you're sitting in bed? Or that you're eating popcorn during class? Or is it that you're actually learning in your best way possible?


I feel like students can relate to participation being a lot more difficult. You seem quite hopeful that some of the new things we're learning might have a positive impact on what education is going to look like in the next few years.


To be clear, the inequalities are being tragically exacerbated. I mean, there are some people who are able to think about classroom methods like learning groups or pods. And there's others who can't even think about the next day. I'm hoping that through all of this, we can reimagine the structures around education. We can reconsider, for example, this notion that kids have to be up super early in the morning to get to school even though they're tired. I think that with leadership and some boldness, we can actually make progress.

COVID has heightened the importance of thinking about anti-racism in all aspects of life. I've actually been very heartened and encouraged by seeing many teachers’ responses even though schools are remote.

I think COVID is really just one thing. If anything, racial injustice has really been highlighted through COVID times. COVID has heightened the importance of thinking about anti-racism in all aspects of life. I've actually been very heartened and encouraged by seeing many teachers’ responses even though schools are remote. In my kids’ school, for example, the kindergarteners had put together a memorial for Breonna Taylor on the Midway, and it has actually been vandalized twice. There are many ways that schools could respond to this. Most of the time, it would be, “Oh, that's so sad, that's too bad,” and then they’d move on. But, what they did is they rallied all of the classes and said, “No, we are going to keep rebuilding this, we're going to make it better.”

There are conversations surrounding anti-racism that we fear may only happen within families of color, but I actually see these conversations happening across the board in households of many different demographics.

Every time something happens, you see more children and even adults really engaging and coming around to have real conversations. They’re not just shying away from it by claiming they’re not racist. It's like, “No. We need to be anti-racist.” We really need to be very active in this. There are conversations surrounding anti-racism that we fear may only happen within families of color, but I actually see these conversations happening across the board in households of many different demographics. And it's not just like, “Oh I don't want to scare my child or make them think that we can't trust the police.” Kids can understand nuance, right? Kids can understand the realities in front of us. The fact is, some kids have no choice. We just need to make sure that we are really raising thoughtful citizens.


I've really seen a lot of schools step up where, previously, conversations about race were limited to Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks. It's been nice to see schools not just focusing on the deficits but also considering the assets of questioning race. They’re looking to highlight the joy and to start thinking about these questions in all of their complexity.


I saw that you focus on early-life influences. We’ve heard a lot about the downfalls of having a kid during COVID and the larger movements towards social justice that were going on in May. Do you think that there's a genuine concern for how kids are growing up right now in such a polemic time?

These are good growing pains, and they're important growing pains. Because if we really want justice, if we really want people to ask the hard questions about the nuances in life, I think that it has to start when kids are young. I think it would be better off if we were honest with young people.

I think yes, but this is actually where I do draw a lot of hope. I've been talking about issues with my kids and being very honest about dangers to children like, “Oh, this is what happened to Emmett Till.” I have had parents of my children's friends say, “What are you doing and why are you talking about these questions, these issues?” They want to shelter our children.


I do think that now is an uncharted territory for how kids are raised. These are good growing pains, and they're important growing pains. Because if we really want justice, if we really want people to ask the hard questions about the nuances in life, I think that it has to start when kids are young. I think it would be better off if we were honest with young people.


I saw that you studied physiology for your bachelor's. I also saw that you have a piece on sanitation education, which seems particularly relevant to COVID and with people trying to fully open schools again. I’m wondering, did you go into physiology with the hope of applying it to policy later, or if that was kind of a change that you went through during your undergraduate degree?


It was a huge change. I planned to go to med school. I thought I was going to get my mPhD. I took a very circuitous route to where I am now. I never thought I would be studying education or teaching at a university or anything like that. At the time, I thought I'd be a doctor doing research on the side and there were two important things that happened in my undergrad that really shifted my course.


One was that I was working in a lab at the time. But, I was also working at a homeless shelter. I remember it was one of those cold, negative degree nights and there was a curfew and if people weren't at the homeless shelter by that time, then people sent out a search party, especially for the people who were regulars at the shelter. There was this one guy, Rob, who hadn't shown up yet. Normally I would want to go out and see what was going on and try to find him. But I also had to get back to my professor’s lab to feed the cells that, if I didn't get back to, nine months of her work would be gone. Thankfully, there were other people who could go and search for Rob. But, as I'm running back to the lab, I was like, “What am I doing? Yes, I care so much about this research. But I care more about the poverty and this systemic inequality that I’m seeing around me.” So that put this little bee in my bonnet.

It made me think, “What am I doing in life? Where do I want to be putting my energy?” I realized a lot of the issues I care about come down to the question, “Where does bias form?” It forms in the earliest years of one's life.

The second moment took place the following year. There was a set of shooting sprees that happened. Someone started from around Chicago and made their way down to Central Illinois, where I went to university.. They wanted to make Central Illinois this hub of white supremacy. We were like, “This is not going to happen, not in our town,” so I started working on more anti-violence type work. I remember sitting in my very favorite class: immunology. And for the first time, I was daydreaming that these white blood cells were actually eating up white supremacists instead of pathogens. It made me think, “What am I doing in life? Where do I want to be putting my energy?” I realized a lot of the issues I care about come down to the question, “Where does bias form?” It forms in the earliest years of one's life. The fact is that people like preschool teachers could give you answers to this. But, in policy, too often, they're not listened to. So where is it that we can shape policy and make sure that these voices become heard? And that’s how I got to where I am now.


That's a super interesting story. Also very inspiring. I’d love to hear if there's anything from the research you've done on sanitation, that you feel applies more succinctly now or if there's anything that you don't agree with anymore. What have you learned from that work?

But actually, talking to parents, you learn they care so much about their daughters that they don't want to put them in harm's way. It is the least responsible thing they can do if we send them to a place where they could get molested or hurt.

So, in my journey to where I am now, I also worked with NGOs in India, and part of that was actually living there. I was working with the Gandhi Ashram and Gandhi’s legacy is about sanitation. He said, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” In my work, I always had this eye for toilets and thinking about the importance of sanitation. Fast forward to being in grad school, I was working on this education microfinance project. When I was visiting a bunch of schools, I started just asking, “Where do you go to the bathroom?” And that's when the story started to come out. The students I interviewed would say, “Oh, we go behind the sign, we go by the bushes out in the open,” or, “Oh, Josie went behind the bushes, but the boys came in and did bad things to her so she had to leave school.” Of course, she had to leave school. The boys didn't have to. The girls say, “I'm so scared it's going to happen to me that I don't eat or drink during the day. Sometimes I feel faint or dizzy and can't concentrate, but it's better than the alternative.”


I had a 12-year-old girl during a household interview talking about the wonders of school. I’d say, “Well, it's during the school day. Why aren't you at school?” She replied, “Oh, I had to miss a few days, every month because of my period. I missed during exams and they wouldn't let me retake them, so I failed out.” There was this common discourse that people don't care about girls, parents don't care about their girls. But actually, talking to parents, you learn they care so much about their daughters that they don't want to put them in harm's way. It is the least responsible thing they can do if we send them to a place where they could get molested or hurt.

If I could give just one call to action, I would say, vote. Use your voice. But the biggest thing is, I think people should just look inside themselves and really think about what they're truly passionate about.

We need to approach everybody with compassion; people generally believe they're doing the right thing. Oftentimes when parents pull their daughters from school, it’s because her honor could be destroyed. The rest of her life could be determined from that. If you think about what your objective function is, as both a parent and a teacher, it’s to create a happy life. We see that parents are usually doing the most compassionate thing they can within these circumstances.


If I could give just one call to action, I would say, vote. Use your voice. But the biggest thing is, I think people should just look inside themselves and really think about what they're truly passionate about. It could be small. It could be big. But, there's so many ways to make a difference in our world around us. I cannot underscore enough that you have to be true to yourself, to your own truth.