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

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State officials met with the owners of Aspen Leaf Preschool this week and refused to answer questions about why they interviewed small children alone about masks, said Howard Wu, one of the preschool’s owners.  

Aspen Leaf previously had a policy in place not to mask its students, despite a state mandate that required preschoolers to wear masks except when they were sleeping and eating. State regulators were aware of the preschool’s policy, but showed up at Aspen Leaf’s three facilities in mid-January to conduct an investigation. They interviewed children alone without a familiar adult present, outraging Aspen Leaf’s parents, Voice of San Diego reported Monday.  

The story has received intense national attention from conservative media outlets.  

Wu attended a follow-up meeting with regulators Wednesday. They required him to send a list of questions before hand. They then refused to answer most of those questions in the meeting, Wu said. 

Child care licensing officials did not respond to questions about the meeting and instead referred Voice to previous statements made by the agency.  

Wu and other parents’ most pressing question: Why did regulators separate children from their teachers to ask them about masking, when the regulators were already aware, and could see, children weren’t wearing masks? 

“’We’re not answering that question,’” an attorney for state officials told Wu, according to an email Wu sent parents after the meeting concluded.  

Wu also submitted questions about who made the decision that children would be interviewed and why his facilities received the most severe citation child care licensing officials can issue.  

Officials declined to answer the majority of the questions, he said. They did, however, tell him that his facility was not treated more harshly than other facilities that have not complied with masking rules.  

Wu believes officials targeted his facilities because he questioned their authority to enforce the mask mandate and has questioned other regulations in the past, as well. Wu, aside from being part-owner of the preschool, is also a lawyer.  

Authorities visited some of his facilities in December, Wu said. Children wore masks at no time during the visits. Aspen Leaf also posted its no-mask policy to its website and had been transparent with regulators about it. 

Aspen Leaf owners didn’t enforce the mask mandate because they didn’t believe it made sense, Wu said. Children spent several hours a day together inside, sleeping and eating – times they were not allowed to wear a mask. Essentially, Wu and the other owners believed children were going to spread viruses among each other, mask or no mask. They also believed the masks were not good for the development of very young children.  

Child care licensing officials didn’t have the authority to enforce the mask mate, essentially because of a technicality, Wu claims.  

The California Department of Public Health issued the mask mandate, but child care licensing officials are part of a different agency, the Department of Social Services. For child care licensing officials to enforce a regulation they would need to actually issue a regulation. Since they never did, there was nothing for them to enforce, Wu claimed.  

In January, a parent filed a complaint against Aspen Leaf. Regulators called Wu and said he needed to enforce the mandate. He told regulators he didn’t think they could make him. Next, regulators showed up at all three facilities simultaneously on Jan. 19.  

They interviewed children at each of the facilities aged 1 – 4, Wu said. In several cases, they separated children from teachers and pulled them into separate rooms to conduct the interviews. Officials have said there was a familiar adult within “line of sight” of the children at all times.  

Aspen Leaf parents say that interviewing children and toddlers alone should only be reserved for extreme cases, such as investigations into child abuse.  

One set of parents had recently told their son about the importance of not talking to strangers. The investigator was the first stranger their son had ever talked to.  

“This gross abuse of power is shameful and unacceptable for many reasons,” the parents wrote in a complaint. “The people who ordered this to be done and those who participated should be held responsible.”  

Wu is challenging the citations he received in court and is considering filing a lawsuit against the child care licensing department.  

Child care licensing officials have declined to meet with Aspen Leaf parents thus far, said Wu. However, they are planning a meeting through Assemblyman Chris Ward’s office.  

Will Huntsberry

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

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