By: George William
State regulators questioned preschoolers as part of an investigation into masking practices at Aspen Leaf Preschool, which operates three locations in San Diego. All three locations were simultaneously “raided,” as some parents have called it, in mid-January. Regulators separated the children and toddlers from familiar adults at each of the centers to ask questions about the preschools’ masking policies.
Regulators isolated and interviewed children aged one to four, a step many parents say was inappropriate and unnecessary.
“This gross abuse of power is shameful and unacceptable for many reasons,” wrote the Rosados, a family in question, in a complaint. “The people who ordered this to be done and those who participated should be held responsible.”
The California Department of Social Services and its child care licensing program oversee regulatory compliance in preschools. Child care licensing investigators do have the authority to interview children in isolated settings, but many Aspen Leaf parents said they believed such tactics were meant to be used in extreme cases, like alleged child abuse.
Regulators “determined that the interviews were conducted in an appropriate manner and were a necessary component of the required complaint investigation,” Kevin Gaines, deputy director of child care licensing, wrote to one Aspen Leaf parent, who lodged a complaint.
“Staff are trained to conduct interviews with children in a manner that avoids causing undue stress,” Gaines wrote.
An Aspen Leaf adult was in the “line of sight” of each child, who was interviewed, Gaines told the parent.
Connie Wu’s daughter was not yet 2 –years old when she was interviewed by regulators in January. Wu doesn’t know what happened in the room or how her daughter felt – because her daughter is too young to say.
“She’s not developmentally able to tell me,” Wu told me. “She doesn’t have the vocabulary to be able to talk about being interviewed by a stranger.”
Howard Wu, unrelated to Connie Wu, is a part-owner of Aspen Leaf and a lawyer. He believes the state’s child care licensing department doesn’t have the authority to enforce the mask mandate – essentially because of a technicality.
Howard Wu believes child care licensing officials went after his facilities, because he questioned their authority. Child care licensing officials did not respond to a question about whether they treated Aspen Leaf more severely than other facilities.
Officials visited Aspen Leaf facilities twice in December. They saw children weren’t masked, but knew of the center’s no-mask policy, Howard Wu said. The regulators didn’t issue any citations and didn’t write in their report that children weren’t wearing masks, he said. But they did send him an email a few days later reiterating that children are required to wear masks.
Then in January, as Omicron surged, a parent complained to the licensing authority. An investigator called Howard Wu and asked him to enforce the mandate. He laid out his argument that regulators didn’t have the authority to enforce the mandate.
A few days later, investigators showed up at all three of the facilities, saw children not wearing masks and conducted interviews.
Aspen Leaf reversed its policy to avoid the possibility of getting shut down. The state’s mask requirement for child care centers ended March 11, the same day it ended for schools.