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

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

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?