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Recommitting to RTI/MTSS After COVID-19 School Closures

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Guest post by Jim Wright, national presenter, trainer, and author on topics that cover the essentials and beyond of Response to Intervention and Multi-Tiered System of Supports.

Lately, in my conversations with schools, I have noted that educators in my own state of New York and other parts of the country are breathing a deep sigh of relief. The COVID-19 interruption to public education, which began over a year ago, appears finally to be ending. There is every likelihood that schools will return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall of 2021.

But clouds lie on the horizon. Because of the challenges of the past year and a half, many schools anticipate in the coming year a substantial uptick in the number of students identified as in danger of academic failure. While there are several reasons for this expected jump, primary explanations are that, during the pandemic, vulnerable learners became discouraged and disengaged from remote instruction or encountered other roadblocks to learning such as a lack of reliable internet service.

It is too early to fully gauge the severity of the learning loss that has accrued over the past 16 months. The reality is that the impact of the COVID interruption on academic performance has varied widely across districts.

However, one recent study estimates that the initial COVID interruption from March to September 2020 alone may have erased as much as one-third of typical yearly reading growth and nearly two-thirds of typical math growth from the skill set of the average learner.1  

And we can presume that, for many at-risk students, learning losses have only continued to compound across the current school year, as the majority of districts conducted some version of remote or hybrid (mix of remote and in-person) instruction.

Using RTI/MTSS to overcome the impact of the COVID-19 interruption on student learning

An obvious concern is that a sudden large post-COVID influx of students qualifying for remedial educational supports might overwhelm schools’ capacity to provide high-quality academic intervention. A logical solution is for schools to invest renewed energy in a strong RTI/MTSS academic model.

RTI/MTSS is a systemic approach that uses data to identify and monitor students at risk for academic failure, matches those students to appropriate tiered academic interventions, and collects and archives the resulting academic intervention plans to be easily accessed for future retrieval and review. RTI/MTSS applies a rational structure and clear decision rules to flag students in need of intervention support. This fair, transparent process ensures that learners with significant academic risk will receive timely, appropriate services.2

An unfortunate consequence of the COVID interruption is that districts were often forced to scale back or even temporarily suspend their RTI/MTSS supports.

This year, for example, numerous districts reassigned Tier 2 academic intervention personnel to serve as classroom teachers to permit a reduction in the size of in-person classes. Similarly, schools adopting a hybrid instructional model sometimes cut the contact frequency of their intervention groups to only one or two sessions per week — below the recommended three-session/week minimum. While such cutbacks may well have been unavoidable during the COVID emergency, a necessary next step for these districts will be to reinstate the full RTI/MTSS academic model as soon as possible.

Below are four recommendations for schools seeking to bring their RTI/MTSS model back to full strength. These suggestions come from my recent observations from my work with schools on what RTI/MTSS elements were most likely to have been deemphasized, suspended, or even eliminated during the pandemic. Use them as a launching point to evaluate your system’s readiness to respond quickly and appropriately to the needs of all at-risk learners.

4 steps to bring your RTI/MTSS program back up to full strength

1. Recommit Staff to the Mission of RTI/MTSS

In any school, RTI/MTSS is powered by the energy and commitment of faculty and staff who implement it. As schools move to fully restore RTI/MTSS to pre-COVID levels, they should provide “refresher” professional development to staff to renew their understanding of the fundamentals of RTI/MTSS.

A key point to emphasize is that RTI/MTSS is not a roadblock to special education. Rather, the model is preventative: it seeks to provide timely, targeted support to at-risk students to catch and fix academic problems before they cascade into unbridgeable deficits.3 Staff should also be reminded that formative data on academic performance is used to move students up and down the three Tiers of academic intervention.

2. Retrain Teachers in Tier 1/Classroom Interventions

As schools return to in-person learning, they may see a potential increase in students at risk for academic regression. In response, these schools are likely to first assign learners with mild academic delays to classroom instructional review and intervention before considering more intensive Tier 2/3 services. It is therefore crucial that teachers have the appropriate tools and support to carry out high-quality Tier 1/classroom plans and outcomes so the school can discern as quickly as possible which students need additional (i.e., Tier 2/3) services.

Yet in the time of the recent COVID interruption, many schools scaled back or suspended Tier 1 (classroom) interventions. To reinstate high-quality first-tier interventions after a year-long hiatus will not be as easy as flicking a switch. Rather, you will want to refresh the training of teachers in how to carry out these interventions, including specifics about:

  • Whom teachers consult when developing classroom intervention plans.
  • What form(s) to use to put the plan in writing.
  • How many instructional weeks the intervention plan is expected to last (e.g., 6 weeks) before evaluating the effectiveness of that plan.
  • What school-based and/or online resources are available that teachers can browse for intervention and data-collection ideas.
  • How teachers refer students for higher levels of RTI/MTSS support when classroom interventions alone are not successful.

3. Restore the Full Tier 2/3 Intervention Continuum

Schools that temporarily reduced or dismantled their Tier 2 (supplemental) and Tier 3 (intensive) intervention levels in response to COVID should prioritize reinstating them according to RTI/MTSS quality guidelines.4 For example:

  • Group sizes are to be capped at 7 students for Tier 2 and 3 students for Tier 3.
  • Tier 2 groups are expected to meet 3 times weekly for at least 30 minutes, while Tier 3 groups meet 4-5 times per week for 30 minutes.

However, we need to acknowledge that, faced with a possible spike in the number of students with academic delays due to the COVID interruption, schools may be tempted to cut corners in delivering Tier 2/3 services. For instance, Tier 2/3 providers may be urged by teachers to devote intervention sessions to help students to ‘catch up’ in classwork. Despite such pressure, they should remain true to their Tier 2/3 purpose: to find and fix identified students’ off-grade-level skill gaps.5

Also, Tier 2/3 staff should be allocated across grade levels and schools within a district to promote equity in services6: Higher-performing schools with fewer students qualifying for Tier 2/3 services may be assigned fewer interventionist positions, for example, while their fellow schools with larger at-risk populations might receive proportionally greater intervention support.

4. Rethink Data Sources to Determine RTI/MTSS Eligibility

A pervasive negative impact of the COVID interruption has been a reduced availability of quality data sources to determine eligibility for Tier 2/3 intervention services.

During a typical school year, schools employ a battery of academic assessments in fall, winter, and spring to assess risk for academic failure. In determining Tier 2/3 eligibility, RTI/MTSS decision-makers ideally place the greatest weight on a reliable school-wide screener (e.g., NWEA MAP; STAR Reading/Math; FastBridge; AIMSweb). This screening data might then be supplemented with additional academic data sources such as state tests and classroom instructional assessments.

In many locales, however, the pandemic has forced the cancellation of key assessments (e.g., state tests) commonly used for RTI/MTSS placement.

In addition, remote instruction has forced schools to convert traditional in-person assessments (e.g., running records; CBM Oral Reading Fluency) to online administration. Yet if these assessments were never normed for remote use, informally modifying them for ‘distance assessment’ potentially violates administration guidelines and reduces schools’ confidence in using published benchmark norms to interpret student results.

To compensate for missing or compromised data sources, schools should:

  • Complete a building-wide ‘assessment audit’ that lists all assessments currently used for RTI/MTSS eligibility at each grade level.7

For each assessment entry, the audit records the decision(s) for which this data tool is appropriate (e.g., determining eligibility for Tier 2 services for math-fact fluency), as well as a general rating of the technical adequacy (reliability and validity) of the tool. Once completed, the assessment audit will allow the school to rank its academic data sources from most to least objective to weed out redundant tools and to flag assessment gaps requiring additional data sources.

  • Consider adding non-standard data sources to help determine Tier 2/3 eligibility.8

Schools blinkered because of COVID-related loss of academic data might consider temporarily substituting less-direct measures of academic performance, particularly when evaluating the academic risk of remote learners. Examples include attendance, indicators of work engagement (e.g., percentage of student responses to online teacher queries; percentage of time the student turns the camera on during remote lessons, etc.), and teacher nominations of at-risk learners.

  • Review and — if necessary — firm up decision rules for triangulating data from the school’s current screening battery.

Ensure that data-driven guidelines for student eligibility are fair, transparent, and applied with consistency.9

As districts gear up to restore to students their full array of RTI/MTSS supports, we might easily regard the past 16 months of the COVID interruption as an unmitigated disaster. Without question, the pandemic has wrought negative, potentially long-lasting effects on education, including social separation, stress, and — for our most vulnerable learners — the erosion of academic skills.

Upon reflection, however, we might also identify potentially positive outcomes, such as the many examples within schools of staff, students, and parents coming together in the face of a deadly global health threat to model resilience and creative problem solving.

And, in the aftermath of COVID school closures, RTI/MTSS stakeholders in some districts have discovered an additional silver lining: they recognize that the obligation to restore their full RTI/MTSS model is also an opportunity to recommit to it, to build it back better. The recommendations presented in this article can provide the first steps in that rebuilding project.

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1 Kuhfeld, M., Soland, J., Tarasawa, B., Johnson, A., Ruzek, E., & Liu, J. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University:

2 McDougal, J. L., Graney, S. B., Wright, J. A., & Ardoin, S. P. (2009). RTI in practice: A practical guide to implementing effective evidence-based interventions in your school. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

3 Wright, J. (2007). The RTI toolkit: A practical guide for schools. Port Chester, NY: National Professional Resources, Inc.

4 McDougal, J. L., Graney, S. B., Wright, J. A., & Ardoin, S. P. (2009). RTI in practice: A practical guide to implementing effective evidence-based interventions in your school. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

5 Miller, F.G., Sullivan, A.L., McKevett, N.M., Muldrew, A., & Hansen-Burke, A. (2021).  Leveraging MTSS to advance, not suppress, COVID-related equity issues: Tier 2 and 3 considerations. Communiqué, 49(3), 1, 30-32.

6 Miller, F.G., Sullivan, A.L., McKevett, N.M., Muldrew, A., & Hansen-Burke, A. (2021).  Leveraging MTSS to advance, not suppress, COVID-related equity issues: Tier 2 and 3 considerations. Communiqué, 49(3), 1, 30-32.

7 Ball, C.R., & Christ, T.J. (2012). Supporting valid decision making: Uses and misuses of assessment data within the context of RTI. Psychology in the Schools, 49(3), 231-244.

8 Miller, F.G., Sullivan, A.L., McKevett, N.M., Muldrew, A., & Hansen-Burke, A. (2021).  Leveraging MTSS to advance, not suppress, COVID-related equity issues: Tier 2 and 3 considerations. Communiqué, 49(3), 1, 30-32.

9 Miller, F.G., Sullivan, A.L., McKevett, N.M., Muldrew, A., & Hansen-Burke, A. (2021).  Leveraging MTSS to advance, not suppress, COVID-related equity issues: Tier 2 and 3 considerations. Communiqué, 49(3), 1, 30-32.