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When Catherine Sebrell moved to Bozeman with her family five years ago, she looked at 12 different day cares. Not one had a spot open.

It took six months to finally find a place to care for her kids while she and her husband, Andrew, were at work. It was a relief for the family. But now, she has to start that process all over again amid a pandemic.

“As two working parents, it’s so frustrating to keep doing this and it keeps getting worse,” Sebrell said.

Sebrell is a physical therapist for Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital and Andrew is a researcher at Montana State University — both considered essential workers. They have three kids, aged 2, 4 and 6.

They were shocked to find out last week that the preschool program two of their children were supposed to attend was closing. Although the kids are now in emergency child care offered to front-line workers in the area, that’s scheduled to end the last week of May.

The Sebrells have two weeks to find a new place that can care for their children.

“It’s just one more stressor. There are already so many changes in our kids’ lives and our lives and this is just one more,” Sebrell said.

The Sebrells’ situation exemplifies what many in the area go through to find affordable, full-time child care, and also why it’s difficult to provide. Gallatin County only has enough providers to care for 35% of those who need it, according to Greater Gallatin United Way.

The preschool that’s closing, Centennial Park Early Childhood Learning Program at the Bozeman Senior Center, temporarily closed in March due to COVID-19. Staff had plans to reopen on June 1.

But then, there was no one to oversee it. Shannon Bondy, executive director of the senior center, said two staff members quit and another had health concerns about returning to work as the threat of the virus lingers. She said a hiring ad was posted, but only one person responded. The senior center board of directors had to make the difficult decision to end the program, she said.

“It’s devastating. The child care waiting lists are so long. I just feel horrible and as a mother, I do understand those challenges,” Bondy said.

Bondy said the senior center had been struggling with the preschool program for years and the staffing issue was the last straw. Centennial Park was started 16 years ago with a goal of being an “intergenerational learning center.” Seniors were volunteering at the preschool through the Foster Grandparents program.

But the state added more regulations and requirements for licensed preschools, Bondy said, and the program lost volunteers. A Foster Grandparent hasn’t worked there in three years.

The preschool program also wasn’t bringing in enough money to pay for itself. Bondy said the senior center had to support the preschool with revenue from other programs.

“Quite frankly, the child learning center has never really been able to sustain itself,” Bondy said.

Ultimately, the senior center serves older adults, Bondy said, and can’t jeopardize other senior programs, like Meals on Wheels. Bondy said that although the senior center’s building is closed, staff and volunteers are delivering about 900 meals per week in Bozeman, Manhattan, Three Forks and West Yellowstone.

Tori Sproles, of Child Care Connections, a referral agency in Gallatin, Park, Meagher, Broadwater, Jefferson, and Lewis and Clark counties, said Centennial Park is one of two child care facilities that have closed permanently in Gallatin County.

Sproles said many providers already operate on thin margins when not in an economic recession, and that adequate staffing was an issue before the pandemic began. Some facilities will lose money as they open back up because they have the same overhead costs but are limited in the number of children who can be there due to social-distancing guidelines.

Sproles said the state has been slow to roll out the $10 million in federal money available to child care providers in Montana, money that was announced in early May. Sproles said providers had just received the first relief payments on Friday.

“(Providers) have not had as much support as they would have hoped,” Sproles said.

Those in need of child care are having just as hard a time finding spots available and paying for it. Child Care Connections sent out a public service announcement Friday to remind parents that Best Beginnings scholarships are available to those who qualify.

But even for families who can afford it, a spot is not guaranteed.

Sebrell said she hasn’t told her kids that Centennial Park has closed. The 4-year-old had been attending preschool there all year and didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to friends and teachers. Sebrell said she loved the preschool program and was disappointed to see it close without warning.

Sebrell has now called three or four day care centers to ask about availability, but hasn’t had any luck. Two of her kids on waitlists for preschools in town, but spots aren’t likely to open up in the next two weeks.

“You have to be on these waitlists for years,” Sebrell said.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at or at 582-2607.