Kimberly Morales, a teacher at Aspen Leaf Preschool (bottom left), plays with two students on March 3, 2022. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Summary

During the investigation, regulators separated children and interviewed them without familiar adults present in isolated rooms. Many Aspen Leaf parents said they believed such severe tactics were only meant to be used in child abuse investigations.

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Stephanie and Richard Rosado recently told their 4-year-old son about the importance of not talking to strangers. Only days later, state regulators came to the child’s preschool, isolated him in a room away from his teachers and friends and asked him questions about masking. 

His parents, and many others at the preschool, were furious. 

Regulators questioned the Rosados’ son 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. 

What’s strange about that decision, parents and teachers say, is that Aspen Leaf officials had already been open with parents and regulators about their decision to not mask children. 

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 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. 

A student at Aspen Leaf Preschool uses the rock climbing section of the school’s playground on March 3, 2022. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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. 

Child care officials’ reasoning has not soothed parents’ anger. 

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.” 

Aspen Leaf closed briefly when the pandemic began in March 2020. But when it re-opened in June, it openly did not enforce the state’s mask requirement. 

The owners of Aspen Leaf reasoned that children would not be allowed to wear masks while they were sleeping or eating. In other words, they’d give each other COVID-19 no matter what. On top of that, they didn’t believe the masks would be great for children’s development. 

Students at Aspen Leaf Preschool play in the school’s playground on March 3, 2022. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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. 

In order to enforce a regulation, the agency must issue a regulation, Wu said. But so far, the child care licensing department has not issued regulations on masks. 

Instead, the California Department of Public Health issued a mask requirement. Had the state’s health department tried to enforce the mask mandate, Howard Wu said Aspen Leaf would have either complied or considered whether they had any recourse to fight it. 

Child care licensing officials have asserted that they do, in fact, have the authority to enforce the state mask mandate.

The question has not been tested in court.

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.  

To him it seemed the agency had no intention of attempting to enforce the mandate. 

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. 

They issued Aspen Leaf a Type A citation, the most severe violation type.  

Aspen Leaf reversed its policy to avoid the possibility of getting shut down. The state’s mask requirement for child care centers will end March 11, the same day it ends for schools. Aspen Leaf will return to its no-mask policy at that time, Howard Wu said. 

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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27 Comments

  1. Wow , more gestappo tactics from warden Newsom’s crew. On little kids? This is completely unacceptable. These nitwits should be allowed to regulate anything beyond their own coffee intake.

    1. All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent. I think these good people are going to get together and raise some hell and fight the petty, little, bureaucratic tyrants.

  2. the heck with all this mask foofoorah, how about all the junk under that kid on the climbing wall without a harness!!

    1. The photographer’s angle makes it appear steeper than it is. I’ve seen it in person. The “wall” is at about a 35 degree angle (an adult can walk upright on it).

    2. Save your OUTRAGE for the manager the next time your Starbucks order is wrong.. The DEADLY FALL FROM THE CLIMBING WALL is actually just a kid crawling up a ramp.

  3. I am a former preschool teacher. The licensing department is akin to the Gestapo of recent history. NO ONE should sleep with a mask on their face!!! Not an adult or a child. This is another California department that needs a serious overhaul.

  4. I don’t believe in washing hands between changing kids’ diapers even tho it’s a regulation aimed at protecting the health of kids and caregivers. I certainly hope the day care licensing folks would cite this behavior! No different than masking.

    1. Would you care to explain exactly how the two situations are the same? And even if they are the same, would such an infraction warrant isolated interviews with 2 year olds?

    2. On the contrary, masking is like putting a dirty, unwashed hand over your mouth, always.

  5. Who are these “investigators”? Call them out by name. They are public employees, their employment is public record. They need to face the same scrutiny as police officers. Wu a d the parents are likely going to sue the pants off the state for this and taxpayers will end up footing the bill.

  6. The school was open about its decision to not mask children – this all happened because a parent decided that she wanted the kids masked after all and complained when she didn’t get her way.

    If you choose to send your kid to a school that doesn’t require masks and you want all the kids muzzled – leave the school, don’t demand that everyone do what you want against their own wishes. What a terrible, terrible human.

  7. If I were a parent I this school. district I would group with other parents and go after the people and the person that issued the order! I would not stop until those responsible were dismissed and charged! Think of the trauma this has done to the children! I am furious!

  8. The problem lies in the sentence, “Aspen Leaf officials had already been open with parents and regulators about their decision to not mask children.” Wearing masks in preschool was a licensing mandate and not a decision for a preschool owner/director to make. If every director chose to override licensing mandates, there would be no way to protect children in their care. The risks associated with not masking and potentially contracting COVID far outweigh the inconvenience of wearing a mask.

    1. Actually masking was NOT a licensing mandate. It was a Department of Public Health (CDPH) rule. The child care licensing agency never adopted a regulation to enforce CDPH rules, as required by the Administrative Procedure Act, though it could have at any time. That’s why the preschool said the licensing agency didn’t have the authority to enforce it.

      1. And the owners at Aspen Leaf thought long and hard about this decision, communicated openly with all of the parents about it, and shared their reasoning with us and the regulators.

        I agree, I’m a rule follower. But sometimes the rules are stupid. Like men regulating women’s health issues, it seems sometimes those in charge don’t have the necessary context.

  9. “Raid”

    This is really sloppy journalism. Were they armed and armored? Did they burst into each room and shout commands?

    No; it was a common regulatory inspection. A couple of inspectors went to the office, introduced themselves, and asked to interview kids. Masks aside, it literally happens every day somewhere in California, usually in response to a complaint by a parent or staff member.

    1. It was not a “regulatory inspection” because there is no “regulation” about masking. A regulation (or “rule”) is a requirement issued by an administrative agency of the executive branch in order to facilitate ENFORCEMENT OF A LAW. The executive has authority to enforce laws, not write them. A law is valid if and only if (1) it is passed by majority of the legislature, (2) signed into law by executive and (3) does not violate CA or US constitutions. The CA legislature has not passed a school mask bill into law. Not yet. Newsome’s executive order is not a “law” it is an “order.” Executive orders are only valid to the extent they do not change existing law. If the authority to write new laws, change existing laws, and enforce laws is vested all in one person, he is literally a dictator. Every California state employee, including regulatory inspectors, teachers, and cops, swears to uphold the state constitution which requires separation of powers. They owe their loyalty to the PEOPLE of California not to the governor or the legislators. Therefore inspectors, teachers, and cops who actively enforce Newsome’s unconstitutional demands are all violating their oaths.

      In addition to the duty imposed by their oath, it is also the moral and civil duty of these “lesser magistrates” to disobey any unconstitutional or invalid order they are given. It is called the doctrine of lesser magistrates.

      Just take it to the extreme and it’s quite obvious how absurd all of these executive orders have been. What if Governor Newsome signed an executive order saying that all first born male children must be sacrificed by removing their still beating hearts to appease the gods? Do you just shrug your shoulders and say “welp, nothing we can do about it, regulators gonna regulate.” When parents call the cops to intervene, do the cops arrest the regulators covered in blood, or the parents? That situation is exactly the same. Newsome’s masking order has no more validity than his future child sacrifice order.

      The extremely disheartening reality is that 99.9% of state workers, cops and teachers have chosen sides, and they chose loyalty to Newsome over the people. No one seems to understand how dire the situation is now. Not from “covid”, not from Newsome even, but from the plague of blind obedience and submission that has infected 90% of Californians. Land of the meek, home of the ‘fraid.

  10. This outrageous abuse of power reveals that it is high time for legislation to eliminate the right of this agency to interview children under any circumstance without advance notification and the presence of the child’s parent or guardian. In the event there is probable cause of parental abuse, then the “regulators” should immediately turn over the case to a law enforcement agency with proper jurisdiction.

  11. I’m a parent of two Aspen Leaf kids, and I’m incensed at the petty bullying from the board. Aspen Leaf has been incredibly thoughtful and proactive throughout the pandemic, managing no community spread. Through two years of a raging pandemic in an environment filled with snot-dripping peatri dishes that have no regard for personal space.

    Meanwhile, child care centers that allowed multiple children with active COVID symptoms to attend without any testing were issued less severe citations.

    Howard and his team have burned _countless_ hours during the zillionth peak of a horrific two years not focused on childcare, but on defending themselves against power-hungry clipboard-jockey low-level beauracrats. They’ve opened up their research (including that finding above), if you’d like to dig in:

    https://californiachildcarelicensing.com

    Ugh, I hate sounding like some raging “Karen”, but I also really don’t like people with fake power causing real damage.

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