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Ahead of Bozeman School District’s blended start, many families are piecemealing child care services together to cover the three days a week students are not in class.

Child care organizations are working to rapidly expand their services to meet parents need for full-day, school-aged care before the district returns for two days of in-person learning Sept. 8.

“We have had lots of phone calls and emails,” said Danica Jamison, president and CEO of Greater Gallatin United Way. “They have no idea where to go for the three days their child won’t be in school, or if there won’t be afterschool at their elementary school what will they do.”

She said while some parents have the freedom to ask their employers for a flexible schedule or decide not to return to work, many families are left uncertain of where to turn for child care services.

After a couple weeks of strategy sessions with local organizations, Jamison said United Way will launch six classrooms of full-day programming at three or four sites. The organization signed an agreement this week with the city to have two classrooms in Story Mansion and two in Lindley Park Center. The two other sites are still pending.

The classrooms will be offered to city employees and then United Way’s 21st Century Community program, which typically serves students on free and reduced lunch. If spots are still available, it will be open to families that meet socioeconomic challenges.

The organization will also offer a limited number of its KidsLINK after-school program slots in Belgrade at the elementary and middle school.

There will not be any KidsLINK after-school services in Bozeman schools until the district’s board approves a move to the cohort model of classes that would see students attending five days a week, she said.

But even with that plan in place, there are still a number of uncertainties for nonprofits and child care organizations to work through.

“It’s a challenging situation for staff to possibly be teaching one cohort of students on Monday and Tuesday, a blended group on Wednesday and then Thursday and Friday have another group,” Jamison said.

Sarah Peterson, eligibility specialist with Child Care Connections, said there are a lot of programs expanding services to include school-aged children. But many are faced with staffing shortages and financial challenges, she added.

Child Care Connections has launched a website, OutofSchoolMT.org, to help connect parents with programs offering services. The site has compiled a list of out-of-school care available in Gallatin County, along with the schedule, location, age range and program capacity for each.

For families unable to enroll their children in child care programs due to coronavirus health concerns, Peterson said they can apply for special circumstance scholarships through CCC.

The scholarships, funded through the state of Montana, offer money for families, especially those in rural places, to fund at-home care.

Peterson said her agency has about $2 million and have received 350 applications to-date. Each family will receive a scholarship of $4,000, she said.

Some larger employers have started making plans to provide their own child care services for employees.

One of those is the Bozeman School District. It has partnered with the Gallatin Valley YMCA to offer a full child care program for teachers within the district.

The program will run Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to accommodate teachers with school-aged children, said Andrea Stevenson, CEO of the YMCA.

The district and YMCA already work together to run the Hawks Nest daycare in Bozeman High School for children up to five years old. The new school-aged program will be located at Gallatin High School.

“It’s going to be a tremendously stressful job for teachers trying to make this system work,” she said. “If we can support them then they can do a great job educating our community’s children.”

Stevenson said the YMCA is applying for state of Montana COVID-19 funding, but it will not cover the whole cost of the program. She said parents might be asked to pay a small fee.

The cost of implementing coronavirus-related safety protocol goes beyond additional staff and cleaning supplies. Stevenson said they had to buy additional things like arts and crafts supplies and rubber balls because things can’t be shared among the kids.

“It’s just so expensive to provide that care to the children, and I’m not sure our community understands the expenses that come along with it,” Stevenson said.

While neither United Way nor YMCA says it will provide an educational program, they are hoping to take some of the burden off parents by having staff that can assist with the children’s online learning.

“Learning must continue on the days student aren’t in school,” Stevenson said. “We’re working to provide support for kids during the typical school day.”

Stevenson and Jamison said staffing was still a major challenge. With smaller class sizes of one provider to six children, Stevenson estimates the YMCA still needs about 25 child care providers for its school district program.

While there is a lot of uncertainty, Jamison said she has seen how resourceful parents have been in support of their children.

“That’s what’s needed,” she said. “For people to be creative, be open minded and be generous.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly said special circumstance scholarships administered by Child Care Connections were $2,500. Each family can receive $4,000.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.