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RTI/MTSS & COVID-19: 3 Steps to Regain Control
This post is for you if you have wondered:
- How can we tell which learners are most affected academically by the school shutdowns?
- What will the academic impact be? How can we even start to measure it?
- Can we still successfully implement RTI/MTSS programs during distance learning? How?
- What can we do NOW to lay the groundwork for RTI/MTSS needs when school reconvenes?
- How can we triage RTI/MTSS services fairly and equitably when buildings reopen?
In mid-March 2020, schools across the nation closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This sudden and massive interruption of instruction is unprecedented and represents a cataclysm with no playbook on how schools should respond. And there is the further possibility that — even after schools reconvene — future instructional lockdowns may be ordered due to flareups of the virus.
Most schools are regularly delivering some form of online instruction during the current COVID-19 lockdown. However, schools are reporting that numerous students — perhaps as many as half in some low-income school districts — are not participating in online learning1. The medium- and long-term consequences are likely to be dire for this large group of “digitally absent” students. Not only are they failing to receive new instruction, but they are also missing opportunities to review and reinforce previously taught skills and academic content. As a result, when schools return to session, this substantial group of students is predicted to have large learning gaps that must be identified and remediated.
Students who received RTI/MTSS academic support prior to school closure are at even greater risk for academic regression. These learners typically show deficits in such basic academic skills as math-fact fluency or reading comprehension, reducing their ability to work independently. To compound the problem, these RTI/MTSS students also often lack strong self-management skills — such as the ability to schedule their time, organize their workspace, study — that are necessary components of home instruction. RTI/MTSS students may also face additional risk factors, such as parents who struggle to adequately supervise and coach their learning or having little or no access to home Internet service.
It is understandable that RTI/MTSS Teams might feel helpless when faced with the colossal impact of the COVID-19 interruption to schooling and uncertainty about its duration. In fact, however, there are three important tasks that your RTI/MTSS Team can take on immediately to assert control even as this crisis continues to unfold: The Team can:
- While schools are closed, coordinate problem-solving conversations with parents of at-risk home-bound students
- When schools reopen, lay plans to rapidly screen students for academic risk
- When schools reconvene, triage future intervention services to ensure that the widest range of eligible students are matched to RTI/MTSS academic support
Taking these three steps can help you minimize disruption for your students and regain control of your RTI/MTSS efforts. Keep reading for an outline and examples of each step.
1. Schools Closed: Create RTI/MTSS Home-Based Intervention Plans
The current education lockdown can seem bewildering to school staff because the learning environment has been relocated to the home — and therefore lies outside of teachers’ direct control. One complication is that the parent(s) or guardians may need direction and guidance to take on an unfamiliar educational role as onsite supervisor of their child’s learning. Another is that the home setting offers many distractions that can interfere with learning.
Despite such hurdles, RTI/MTSS Teams should remember that the essential elements of instruction are still in place in home-based distance learning: teachers deliver instruction, assign academic work, and provide performance feedback/grades to evaluate student work. It follows that, even via online instruction, teachers should be able to identify which of their students fail to engage in, or are doing poorly in, schoolwork and would benefit from an RTI/MTSS intervention. With only minor modifications, then, the RTI/MTSS Team should be able to adapt its familiar school-based process of teacher referral and intervention planning to home-based instruction.
It should be acknowledged, though, that most schools cannot offer intensive-intervention services such as Tier 2 reading groups during the lockdown period. Instead, intervention attempts centering on home learning will be modest in scope — equivalent to Tier 1/classroom support. Still, such interventions are worth attempting and documenting as they may help to salvage at least some learning for the student. The steps below sketch out a general process that the RTI/MTSS team can follow to find learners struggling with home-centered instruction and provide and document RTI/MTSS support plans.
- Survey teachers. The RTI/MTSS Team contacts all teachers and requests that instructors send them names of any students who are substantially underperforming or failing to participate in online instruction.
- Schedule parent problem-solving conferences. The classroom teacher or other school representative (e.g., school counselor, school psychologist, reading or math interventionist) schedules a phone call or video conference with parent(s) of at-risk students. During this call, parent(s) and school personnel identify what blocker(s) appear to prevent student success and develop a brief written intervention plan to address these blockers. (For a teacher protocol with guidelines for conducting a parent conference by phone, access the handout RTI/MTSS in the time of COVID-19: Writing a Home-Based Academic Support Plan.)
- Archive RTI/MTSS plans. The school saves and archives these home-based RTI/MTSS plans as part of the overall intervention record of at-risk students.
When students return to school, the race will be on to speedily match those requiring RTI/MTSS support to the appropriate level of intervention services.
2. Schools Reopen: Strengthen Academic Screening and Diagnostic Capacity
The reality haunting district and school leaders and their teams during the closure period is that instruction has been interrupted for months for an unknown but potentially large number of students. While there is no recent parallel in America for the current pandemic lockdown, one way that you and your teams can better understand its likely academic impact is by looking at the pattern and magnitude of “typical” student academic regression during summer recess (the so-called summer slide).
Research indicates that when schooling is interrupted for summer vacation, the majority of students exhibit at least some academic loss, math shows a greater decline than reading, and there is a greater proportional impact on learning in the upper grades2. So, the probability is high that the COVID-19 “school closure slide” will result in a similar pattern across students but with greater losses in learning corresponding to the longer period of school interruption.
When schools reconvene, this group of delayed learners will need timely remediation to “catch up” on missed instruction. The question of exactly how schools will provide such large-scale remediation lies beyond the scope of the RTI/MTSS Team, as this decision is complex and will require input from important stakeholding groups such as school boards, teachers’ unions, and state education departments.
However, when schools are back in session, the RTI/MTSS Team can play a vital role in measuring the scope and magnitude of academic delays in the student population. Applying its existing skills in school-wide screening, the team has the tools to rapidly tabulate the number of learners at each grade level with substantial instructional gaps and highlight the specific “lost” curriculum content from the closure period that teachers will need to reteach to the entire class or grade.
While school-wide academic screeners can give general information about student skill gaps, instructors may wish to supplement screeners with their own teacher-made assessments that evaluate targeted skills and content originally taught during the lockdown period.
If schools reopen in the fall of 2020, a 4th-grade math teacher may administer a test within the first week to survey students’ mastery of important grade 3 math skills and concepts first covered during the spring school closure.
The combination of RTI/MTSS screening data and teachers’ supplemental assessments should supply sufficient information to reveal how much time instructors will need to set aside to review past learning and the specific curriculum content to revisit.
There will be considerable pressure to conduct these assessments as quickly as possible when schools reconvene, to make up for lost instructional time. For this reason, schools should lay the groundwork for these screenings now, during the closure period.
The RTI/MTSS Team should consider reviewing its schoolwide academic screener(s) (e.g., Measures of Academic Progress/NWEA; STAR Reading or Math, etc.) and familiarize itself with any reports generated by the screener(s) that summarize group academic performance. These group reports analyzing shared skill deficits will be extremely helpful in gauging the pattern of “school closure slide” experienced by each grade level.
Similarly, teachers can use the lockdown period to review the academic curriculum currently being as delivered in home instruction and develop classroom assessments that will allow them to rapidly assess degree of student mastery as soon as classes reconvene.
3. Schools Reopen: Create a Plan to Triage RTI/MTSS Services
When students return to school, the race will be on to speedily match those requiring RTI/MTSS academic support to the appropriate level of intervention services. In an average school, about 10 to 15 percent of students may typically qualify for Tier 2/3 services at any one time3. However, if substantial numbers of learners have regressed in academic skills because of their “digital absence” during the closure period, you may find that the pool of eligible RTI/MTSS students has swelled to a level that potentially could overwhelm that building’s capacity to provide those services.
While the lockdown phase continues, the RTI/MTSS Team will probably find it impossible to estimate with any accuracy how many students might qualify for RTI/MTSS Tier 2/3 support when schools eventually reopen. Still, schools recording high numbers of non-participating learners during closure are likely to experience a spike in Tier 2/3-eligible students down the road. But even without clear projections of at-risk students, the RTI/MTSS Team should develop contingency plans in case they encounter an unexpected demand on intensive-intervention services in the near future.
One idea for schools overwhelmed with potential Tier 2/3 referrals might be to place on a “Tier 1 watchlist” those students falling in the mild to moderate risk level (e.g., 15-25th percentile) on a building-wide RTI/MTSS screener. As an RTI/MTSS service, these students would receive Tier 1/classroom instructional review of curriculum originally covered during the closure period. Those watchlist students flagged again with mild to moderate risk on the next school-wide academic screening would then be placed in Tier 2/3 services.
Another expedient to manage a possible surge of Tier 2/3 students may be to identify a cadre of non-instructional personnel within the school community (e.g., paraprofessionals; adult/parent volunteers; cross-age peer tutors; etc.). These personnel could be supervised by intervention teachers and would assist in delivering intervention instruction4.
In one urban elementary school, 5th-grade students trained and overseen by adults successfully provided intervention support to 2nd-grade children to promote reading fluency.5
Key Takeaway: The RTI/MTSS Team Replaces “Chaos with Order”
During the current COVID-19 educational closure, schools might feel that they are in free-fall with little sense of how to reconnect with disengaged home-bound students, assess the magnitude of lost instruction across the school, or triage RTI/MTSS services fairly and equitably when buildings reopen. And we should be under no illusions: the negative effects of the pandemic will probably reverberate through our school systems for years to come.
During this difficult time, however, the RTI/MTSS Team can follow the recommendations shared here to replace COVID-19 chaos with order, assisting their schools with the continuing mission to deliver timely academic support to their most vulnerable learners.
1 Goldstein, D., Popescu, A., and Hannah-Jones, N. (2020, April 6). As school moves online, many students stay logged out. The New York Times, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com
2 Kuhfeld, M., & Tarasawa, B. (2020). The COVID-19 slide: What summer learning loss can tell us about the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement. NWEA. Retrieved from https://www.nwea.org/
3 Wright, J. (2007). The RTI toolkit: A practical guide for schools. Port Chester, NY: National Professional Resources, Inc.
4 Burns, M. K., & Gibbons, K. A. (2008). Implementing response-to-intervention in elementary and secondary schools. New York: Routledge.
5 Wright, J., & Cleary, K. S. (2006). Kids in the tutor seat: Building schools’ capacity to help struggling readers through a cross-age peer-tutoring program. Psychology in the Schools, 43(1), 99-107.