This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia School District took a big risk last summer.
In an attempt to boost the number of substitute teachers willing to come to its schools, it decided to outsource the service to a private firm, Source4Teachers.
Through the first four months of classes, that decision has proved to be extremely unwise – causing an uproar at many schools across the city and calling into question the viability of academic offerings.
In off-the-record conversations, many principals and teachers complained of a disastrous impact on classrooms. A system already fragile from years of resource deficiencies has been further stressed, leaving many students without continuity or stability.
While many educators declined attribution in fear of retaliation from the district, a few have been willing to speak out, including Penn Treaty math and science teacher Kristin Combs.
At Penn Treaty, neighborhood school that serves grades 6-12 in Fishtown, Combs said only six substitute teachers total had come to the school all year.
Nearly every day, the permanent teachers have to use prep periods to stand in for vacancies.
"That means that we’re basically all covering all the time," said Combs.
Seeing the logistical nightmare that’s thrust on her colleagues, Combs has wrestled with herself for months about taking any time away from work.
"I’m having such intense guilt about ever being out of school," she said. "I have this doctor’s appointment that I’ve been supposed to be having for months that I’ve been putting off and putting off and putting off."
When Combs finally decided to make the appointment, she felt horrible.
"I feel like I’m completely letting my kids down. And that’s insane," she said. "It’s insane that I feel that much guilt about going to a doctor’s appointment that I need to go to."
From 64 percent fill rate to high of 37
Last school year when a teacher in the Philadelphia School District called out, the spot was filled, on average, 64 percent of the time.
It was that far-from-stellar track record that pushed District leaders to sign a $34 million deal in June with the Cherry Hill-based Source4Teachers. The two-year pact was promised to save the District $2 million.
In April, Naomi Wyatt – then the District’s chief talent officer, since promoted to chief of staff – told reporters that the District simply hadn’t done a good job finding and placing subs in recent years.
Daily attendance for Philadelphia teachers was good compared with other large urban districts, she said, blaming the substitute problem partly on cuts to central administration.
"The pool has shrunk, and our ability to manage the pool has diminished," she said.
In April, Wyatt offered the same lament that many educators are making now.
"When you are at bare-bones staffing, and now you don’t have a sub, it really creates an extra workload on everybody in that building," she said.