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.
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.
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.
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.