Emergency remote teaching across urban and rural contexts: perspectives on educational equity

Earl Aguliera (Department of Curriculum and Instruction, California State University Fresno, Fresno, California, USA)
Bianca Nightengale-Lee (Department of Curriculum, Culture and Educational Inquiry, Florida Atlantic University College of Education, Boca Raton, Florida, USA)

Information and Learning Sciences

ISSN: 2398-5348

Article publication date: 29 June 2020

Issue publication date: 27 July 2020



While educational shifts in response to COVID-19 at the state, district and school-level may have been grounded in the best of intentions, these decisions may not fully respond to the everyday realities of teachers, parents, caregivers and students living within historically marginalized communities. In addition to evidence-based and pragmatic approaches to emergency remote teaching (ERT), there is also a need to understand the experiences of students and families living in urban and rural contexts, who in light of existing educational inequities, are being further exposed to inequitable access due to school closures and the abrupt shift to ERT. This paper aims to use a reflexive dialogic approach to explore these issues.


Drawing from a larger phenomenological study highlighting the lived experiences of families being impacted by emergency shifts in educational policy and practice, this paper presents a dialogue between two teacher-educators of color working directly with teachers and administrators in the K-12 system across urban and rural contexts. This dialogue acknowledges and interrogates inequitable educational practices exacerbated by the pandemic for marginalized communities, and the shared responsibility of supporting the most vulnerable students as they transition to ERT.


Reflecting across their local contexts, the authors highlight the importance of educational decision-making that centers the perspectives of families in local communities; develop both pedagogical and structural approaches to address educational inequities; and purposefully approach ERT to disrupt such inequities and move toward a vision of educational justice.

Social implications

Broader implications of this discussion speak to the ever-widening divide between marginalized and dominant communities, which undergirds the and educational inequities that continue to threaten the academic achievement of all students.


As educational decision-makers imagine new pathways in the days ahead, this dialogue highlights the importance of keeping complex issues of educational inequity at the center of the conversation.



Aguliera, E. and Nightengale-Lee, B. (2020), "Emergency remote teaching across urban and rural contexts: perspectives on educational equity", Information and Learning Sciences, Vol. 121 No. 5/6, pp. 471-478. https://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-04-2020-0100



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited

In the wake of school closures amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been no shortage of calls for evidence-based and pragmatic approaches to emergency remote teaching (ERT). ERT can be distinguished from online teaching in that ERT reflects a sudden and unplanned shifting of classroom-based courses to a distance education model (Hodges et al., 2020). In some cases, ERT approaches use digital platforms, such as learning management systems, to manage these transitions. In other cases, ERT takes the form of paper-based distance education, as in the “packets” of assignments sent to students’ homes by their K-12 schools or districts. Online teaching, on the other hand, refers to educational approaches designed to take place through a digitally networked medium from the start; students and teachers come with different expectations for online coursework than they do ERT (Milman, 2020).

While online teaching is more prevalent in higher education contexts, recent research has explored its potential within K-12 settings (Repetto et al., 2010). Given the wide variety of methods, practices and tools associated with online teaching, applications of this approach vary greatly within and across K-12 and higher educational settings (Dixson, 2010). Every pedagogical situation reflects different student experiences and instructional needs; online teaching across these varied settings must address the particulars of each educational context. And while the field of online teaching has made important strides in reducing financial burdens on students, improving accessibility of content, and differentiating instruction to address student learning preferences, current research suggests that these approaches are no panacea for addressing issues of educational inequity; in some cases, online approaches can even magnify or exacerbate such inequities (Mehta and Aguilera, 2020; Jaggars and Bailey, 2010).

Now, as school districts and universities navigate the uncharted territory of COVID-19, educators, researchers and community leaders also face the challenge of developing equitable approaches to ERT for all students. Across K-12 and higher educational settings, historically marginalized communities have been disproportionately affected by inequitable educational conditions, which often result in negative academic outcomes. More than ever, there is a need to understand the realities of students impacted by existing educational inequities and how these students are being affected by sudden shifts to ERT across the USA.

This article focuses on ERT through the lens of educational equity by presenting a dialogue between two teacher-educators of color working directly with K-12 teachers and administrators across urbanized and rural contexts. This dialogue acknowledges and interrogates the inequitable educational practices exacerbated by the pandemic for marginalized communities, and the shared responsibility of supporting our most vulnerable students as they transition to ERT. While we offer glimpses into our own approaches for supporting teachers and families engaging in ERT during this crisis, we want to be careful not to frame our work as “best practice,” but instead as our best attempts at upholding our commitments to critical pedagogies, humanizing relationships, and reflective practice during this crisis.

Educational inequities in times of crisis

Despite attempts to frame COVID-19 as a “great equalizer,” it is becoming increasingly clear that historically marginalized communities are being disproportionately impacted by this crisis (Owoseje, 2020; Casey, 2020). According to the NAACP (2020), the pandemic has amplified inequities ranging from limited access to medical resources, to increasingly overt racism and xenophobia, to multiple “digital divides” constraining schools’ and communities’ access to distance learning (National Digital Inclusion Alliance [NDIA], 2018; Perrin, 2019).

The responses of educational institutions to COVID-19 have been almost as jarring as the societal shifts influenced by the pandemic itself. While decisions at the state, district and school-level may have been grounded in the best of intentions, these decisions may not fully respond to the everyday realities of teachers, parents, caregivers and students living within historically marginalized communities. In addition to evidence-based and pragmatic approaches to ERT, there is also a need to understand the lived experiences of students and families living in urbanized and rural contexts, who in light of existing educational inequities, are being further exposed to inequitable access due to school closures and the abrupt shift to ERT.

Keeping this grounding in mind, we draw on the dialogic work of Marcelle Haddix and Yolanda Sealy-Ruiz (Haddix and Sealey-Ruiz, 2012; Sealey-Ruiz and Haddix, 2013) to present our own interrogation of these issues within the context of our work with teachers, families and school administrators across urbanized and rural contexts. We are additionally inspired by the work of Cooke (2019), whose autoethnographic approaches demonstrate the value of dialogic reflexivity in our lifelong journeys as educators.

Talking through tensions

The perspectives we share in this dialogue are informed by our personal histories, academic training and lived experiences, as they intersect with the social and institutional contexts that connect our work.

Earl, this article’s first author, has worked as a high school teacher and K-12 reading specialist in several urban schools, and currently lives and works on occupied Yokuts and Mono lands in the Western USA. In his work as a teacher-educator, he collaborates with current and aspiring K-12 teachers across California’s Central Valley, broadly characterized as a more rural context than the coastal cities.

Bianca, the article’s second author, has over 20 years of experience working in K-12 urban and rural public school environments. As a critically engaged community scholar, her research explores critical pedagogy, intersectionality and hip-hop as it relates to socially conscious, humanizing and culturally sustaining educational practice.

Sampling from conversations that took place via videoconferencing, email and online writing platforms, we explore some of the equity-centered tensions informing the sudden shift to ERT. We close with implications for moving beyond ERT, toward new visions of educational justice.

Interrogating inequities


Let me start out by providing my institutional contextual factors. My university has been distinguished as one of, if not the most diverse public institution in our state. It is refreshing really, that when you walk down the middle of our campus corridor, you see Black and Brown faces everywhere, which is a new, yet inspiring feeling. However, while we boast about our diverse student population numbers, and our new HSI designation, I feel our curricular, instructional and programmatic structures still resemble that of a predominately White institution (PWI). Understanding that our student population is one of the most vulnerable to inequitable educational practice in face-to-face contexts, moving to an on-line learning platform only exacerbates the inequities that are experienced. While I’m glad that my institution did provide students a pass or fail option and refunded million dollars back to students for their room and board, there is still very little mention of how the institution is shifting to center the unique curricular and instructional needs of our diverse student population.

Beyond the scope of my institution is the reality that many of our students, who are of color and first generation relied on the institution to provide levels of stability. Unfortunately, these students are now at a great disadvantage, because all of that stability is now placed on the student to provide. Students must now provide:

A safe environment to complete assignments, an electronic device to receive messages from their professors, access to the internet to complete their assignments and enough intestinal fortitude to handle the multifaceted nature of on-line learning. Some of my students dealt with issues of homelessness and are now struggling to find safe spaces to live, work and learn under these stressful circumstances. I mean I think we are all trying our best to mitigate challenges for students, but there needs to be more than a one-size fits all campaign for how to deal with these new challenges.


I love that you started with that framing. I’m on the opposite side of the USA, but I think we share some similarities between the communities we serve. Our university also largely serves a first-generation college student population, even within our education school. We share a designation as an HSI, and an AANAPISI, though I have really appreciated the work that our faculty have been leading here to interrogate and refine our framing of “servingness” (Garcia et al., 2019) in both policy and practice.

We’re located in one of the most populated cities in California. However, our service area extends out to include the many rural and exurban communities that the region is known for. In that sense, our schools, students and families are being impacted by different kinds of “digital divides.” First, there is the version of “the digital divide” that describes reduced access to broadband internet in rural and exurban areas (Perrin, 2019). Second, there is the version of the “digital divide” that impacts students living within our metropolitan areas who have been materially and financially constrained from access to devices, internet connectivity and contexts that can support ERT and online learning more generally (NDIA, 2018).

To be fair, our districts and statewide department of education have taken important steps toward addressing some of these issues, distributing devices and providing emergency virtual in-service trainings aimed at supporting teachers, parents, students and caregivers. But as you alluded to, I think it’s important for those with a stake in education to also look beyond these “stop-gap” measures and at the broader structural inequities that have disenfranchised communities of color long before the crisis if we are to work toward a vision of educational justice in the days ahead.

Centering community


When the crisis first hit, I was working closely with upper administration in the department of curriculum and instruction from the local school district. I actually went to visit the school district building, and while there were warnings that people should be staying home, and while my university just closed its doors to protect people from the further spread of the virus, school district leaders and staff were bustling around the office, diligently strategizing an ERT plan to support the needs of over 195,000 students and their families. They were having multiple in-person meetings to consider how to “do school” in a digital format. From what I understood, much of their conversation was about creating weekly lessons that teachers could access through a digital repository to support distance learning.

During this crisis, I also had the opportunity to chat with teachers, to get their perspective of how the crisis is impacting student learning. I had the opportunity to chat with teachers who taught in affluent and marginalized school settings. Their responses were not necessarily surprising, and align with trends we see across these two educational settings. The Title I school teachers complained that kids were not showing up for class, and that parents were not making them do their work. There seemed to be much frustration from the teachers, and a lack of knowing how to further facilitate engagement from “reluctant” students. One teacher said that she had not even heard from her own principal to see if she was doing OK. Other instructional coaches said that they were inundated with teaching the teachers the functionality of using collaborative online programs, which took them away from their intended purpose of supporting students through curricular and instructional development.

Understanding these realities, I initiated a survey development plan with my local school districts’ research and assessment team, to collaboratively develop a survey for teachers, and parents to better understand their perceptions to the district’s response to COVID ERT learning, and what supports are still needed, in an effort to create a more comprehensive and supportive foundation for distance learning in the future. I believe that investigative measures such as this will be fruitful in driving the next wave of successful on-line learning parameters for all students, but especially for marginalized students. For marginalized students, identification of the online practices which support or suppress their learning is vital to understanding how to create equitable online experiences, which speak to their specific learning needs, home life and family realities.


I really appreciate you sharing those experiences, as they give more insight into the scope of the challenges we are now facing, as well as the added responsibilities that our school leaders and administrators now bear.

I have not been in as much touch with decision-makers at that level, so most of my perspective on what’s happening on the ground has been from the K-12 teachers I have been working with in my graduate courses. I would say around 90% of the folks in my courses are practicing teachers, and the crisis has impacted their own life-work in so many ways – some of which have been highlighted in recent news stories.

About the third week of March – when many of our local districts were announcing school closures, I sent out a much smaller-scale survey (see Appendix), just to see how everyone was doing. Over half of respondents mentioned being responsible for developing ERT plans for their students. Over 90% indicated that they felt either highly or moderately impacted by the crisis in various ways. Qualitatively, teachers mentioned increases in their stress, a lack of access to the technologies needed to engage in ERT, and a general sense of uncertainty about even the near future. And again, this was back in March; based on our recent conversations, things have changed in different ways across our districts.

Other than the survey, we have been in touch more informally via email and videoconferencing office hours, and teachers have remained fiercely committed to their students and families at this time, despite the immense personal and professional challenges they have experienced. While recognizing the realities of the crisis, we have all been working together to understand what it even means to “do school” right now. On that note, I am wondering what teaching has looked like for you through all this.

Crisis-informed pedagogies


I approach this learning crisis through the lens of critical theory, and humanizing pedagogies. This experience is testing our ability to be humane and have compassion for others, and their extenuating circumstances. This crisis is forcing us to look outside of ourselves and our own realities to consider what the human experience is like underneath the pressures of a pandemic – to the likes we have not seen in over 100 years (1918 Spanish Flu). None of us were prepared for something so catastrophic, so ground-breaking, that we are stumbling to find our footing with what to do, and how to handle our personal and professional realities beneath these new pressures. However, within the core of my being, I believe in being critical about the power systems that exist, and I always look to excavate where issues of equity are being challenged or overlooked. That’s why during this time of great tragedy and disenfranchisement, I look at education within my own institution and the school district to examine what is being done to support students in the most humane ways possible. From this perspective, I am interested in learning more about how marginalized communities are striving through this crisis through the lens of cultural wealth rather than deficit, and further how we can use this ERT experience as an opportunity to examine how to better serve them.


I guess I should not be too surprised that we share similar philosophical underpinnings to our pedagogy. A colleague of mine and I had just tried to write through some of these experiences, though our current crisis in many ways has invited us to really “walk the walk” in terms of our commitment to critical humanizing pedagogies (Mehta and Aguilera, 2020).

It does strike me that the pedagogical “moves” I have made – reducing workloads for students, modifying final assignments to better align with teachers’ current experiences of this crisis, and providing additional venues to engage in non-course-related mutual aid and emotional support – are not particularly “radical” or “innovative” beyond the sense that they are centered on a radical commitment to love, care and responsiveness as an acts of resistance in the face of generational trauma, structural inequity and dehumanizing models of institutional education (Shelton et al., 2020). To say a little more about our modified finals, my Multicultural Education teachers are currently writing essays that analyze the crisis through a theoretical lens of their choosing that we have studied this semester. My Educational Technology teachers are documenting the ways they have been supporting their own students through ERT in this crisis.

Everything else I have done as an educator to support our teachers – periodic individual check-ins via email, facilitating discussions to support a sense of community and belonging, and, as you pointed out – critically interrogating and critiquing the power structures that inform our social and institutional relationships – have been core to my pedagogy from the start. In some ways, these commitments and practices felt like they reduced the amount of drastic changes we have had to make in our work together.

Moving through and beyond emergency remote teaching: implications for educational stakeholders

We return now to a shared authorial voice to discuss the potential implications of our experiences and observations for moving beyond ERT in our current time of crisis.

Considering our experiences at the early stages of this crisis, we want to first stress the importance of excavating, investigating, and uncovering what is going on in households where students seem the most “disengaged.” In our work as teacher-educators and district partners, this took the form of surveys, phone calls, and site visits (as guidelines for public safety allowed). This burden need not fall on the shoulders of any single individual, however. An equity task-force addressing these issues could be one that comprised teachers, administrators, students, parents and community members, meeting regularly to better understand the challenges faced through remote learning, what methods are families using to address these challenges, and what institutions can do to further enhance these methods to make schooling responsive, engaging, and impactful for families and students.

With regard to instructional practices, whether emergency-response or otherwise, we encourage future efforts to better understand the potential for distributed teaching and learning networks for differentiating students’ experiences of schooling (Holmes et al., 2020). These could include increased flexibility for content delivery, representations of learning, and assessment; collaboratively developed expectations, and a better understanding of the experience of learning, rather than just its outcomes. While it is tempting to want to “replicate” the existing social practices of schooling, we must also recognize the limitations of those practices and work to transform them.

In summary, we suggest the following areas remain at the core of educational decision-making as we move through and beyond the current crisis:

  • The everyday lived experiences of diverse students, families and educators directly impacted by this crisis.

  • The everyday teaching and leadership already occurring within historically marginalized communities in the face of this and other crises.

  • The affordances and limitations of established approaches to classroom-based instruction, as critical discourse on these issues can open new opportunities for creating educational futures.

  • The affordances and limitations of digital and distance-based educational approaches, that we may be wary not to replicate or exacerbate existing inequities already structured into our schools and society.

To be clear, the ideas we have offered are only small steps toward a more transformative vision of education justice that the crisis has positioned us to consider (Love, 2020). While this article has presented a dialogue between two teacher-educators of color serving in urbanized and rural contexts, additional work to recognize, center and learn from our communities is needed, through both pedagogical and structural transformations. As our colleague Hseih (2020) has pointed out, “without resistance through humanizing pedagogies, we cannot move towards structural and institutional change.” It is work that all educators must do together, through this crisis and beyond.

Appendix. Author 1’s COVID-19 online course adjustment survey

Note: The following survey was administered through Google Forms to two graduate classes of primarily K-12 in-service teachers. It has been re-created for the purposes of this article. The results of the survey were only used to inform Author 1’s pedagogical adjustments to the rest of the semester.


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Holmes, J., Aguilera, E. and Tran, K.M. (2020), “A toolkit for analyzing teaching and learning across contexts”, in Kalir, J.H. and Filipiak, D. (Eds), Proceedings of the 2019 Connected Learning Summit, Vol. 1, ETC Press, pp. 79-86.

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Jaggars, S. and Bailey, T.R. (2010), “Effectiveness of fully online courses for college students: response to a department of education meta-analysis”, Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, available at: https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/D85M63SM (accessed 8 May 2020).

Love, B.L. (2020), “Teachers, we cannot go back to the way things were”, Education Week, available at: www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/04/30/teachers-we-cannot-go-back-to-the.html?cmp=SOC-SHR-FB (accessed 8 May 2020).

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Further reading

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (2020), “Ten equity considerations of the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak in the United States”, available at: https://naacp.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Ten-Equity-Considerations-of-the-Coronavirus-COVID-19-Outbreak-in-the-United-States_Version-2.pdf (accessed 8 May 2020).


This article is part of the special issue, “A Response to Emergency Transitions to Remote Online Education in K-12 and Higher Education” which contains shorter, rapid-turnaround invited works, not subject to double blind peer review. The issue was called, managed and produced on short timeline in Summer 2020 toward pragmatic instructional application in the Fall 2020 semester.

Corresponding author

Earl Aguliera can be contacted at: eaguilera@csufresno.edu