According to a new report, California officials went into preschools and separated children as young as two years old from teachers in order to interview them about mask-wearing without prior consent from parents.
Fox News reported that authorities from the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) went to all three locations of Aspen Leaf Preschool in January after getting a complaint that the school was not enforcing the state’s mask rule, per the CDSS’ response to a complaint by one of the preschool’s owners, Howard Wu.
“According to the CDSS letter, which Wu shared with Fox News Digital, officials with the agency’s Community Care Licensing Division entered the three preschool locations on Jan. 19, separated the children from their teachers and interviewed them privately about their masking practices,” the outlet noted.
Wu told The Daily Wire that at all of the schools, the children were interviewed, but at two of the schools, they were interviewed privately.
“Every family we heard from after the inspections were furious about the interviews,” Wu told Fox News Digital. “We were open the whole pandemic about not masking children and the reasons why. The policy was on our website. Put simply, the mask guidance says children can NOT mask when eating and sleeping. In full day child care that’s 3 hours, so masking at other times offers no health benefit. All the families (except 1 in January) supported the policy.”
“We believe in good faith that the agency doesn’t have jurisdiction to enforce another agency’s mask guidance,” he said. “They could have issued us a citation in 5 minutes and let us take our challenge up through the proper channels. The simultaneous multi-school raids and the child interviews just felt like a power play.”
In its response to Wu, the CDSS argued that it has the authority to “enter and inspect a licensed child care facility at any time, with or without advance notice, to secure compliance with, or prevent a violation” of state laws, as well as “interview children without prior consent and, when necessary, conduct the interviews in private.”
“Based on their personal observations and interviews of the facility directors, staff and children, CCLD staff determined that the licensee failed to ensure that staff and children used face coverings as required by the State Public Health Officer Order of June 11, 2021, thus violating the children’s personal right to safe and healthful accommodations,” the letter said.
After the preschool closed briefly at the beginning of the pandemic, it reopened in June of 2020 and was open about not enforcing the state’s mask rule. The owners of the school pointed to the fact that children wouldn’t be permitted to wear masks while eating or sleeping, so a mask rule would be ineffective at preventing the spread of COVID-19. “On top of that, they didn’t believe the masks would be great for children’s development,” Voice of San Diego reported.
The outlet noted, “[Wu] believes the state’s child care licensing department doesn’t have the authority to enforce the mask mandate – essentially because of a technicality.”
In December, authorities came to the Aspen Leaf centers twice and saw that children were not wearing masks and were aware of the facility’s no-mask policy, per Wu. The officials didn’t put forward any citations or include in their report that the kids were mask-less, he noted. However, they sent him a reminder email a few days later telling him that children need to be wearing masks.
In January, one family issued a complaint to the authorities after discussing concerns with the school. An investigator gave Wu a call and Wu explained his belief that regulators don’t have the ability to enforce the rule, and gave reason for why the school chose not to mask children. Days later, the investigators came to the locations and carried out the controversial interviews with young children.
According to Voice of San Diego, the agency gave Aspen Leaf a Type A citation, which is the most serious kind of violation.
Voice of San Diego reported:
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 an Aspen Leaf parent, who put forward a complaint.
“Staff are trained to conduct interviews with children in a manner that avoids causing undue stress,” Gaines wrote, adding that an Aspen Leaf adult was in the “line of sight” of each interviewed child.
Wu believes that the preschool was unfairly targeted by the authorities because he pushed back on their authority.
“After it all happened I actually pulled every licensing report issued in California during the pandemic to get the data to show we were treated more harshly than any other center,” he told Fox News Digital.
Wu published the information on a website, stating, “California has a child care crisis,” adding “the child care licensing agency is making things worse.”
The preschool changed its mask rule to prevent being shut down. The state’s mask mandate for child care facilities is set to end on March 11, which is when Aspen Leaf will go back to its previous policy of no masks, according to Wu.
Following publication, The Daily Wire reached out CCLD and CDSS for comment.
A CDSS official sent the following letters, which were sent to Aspen Leaf families who contacted CDSS.
March 1, 2022
RE: COVID RESPONSE ASPEN LEAF PRESCHOOL
Dear Parent or Guardian,
The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) Community Care Licensing Division (CCLD) has received your letter. Thank you for sharing your concerns about the licensing evaluator’s interview of your child. We want to ensure you that CCLD takes seriously its responsibility of ensuring the health and safety of children in licensed child care facilities. It is for this reason that CCLD spoke with your child.CCLD management has reviewed your letter, relevant inspection reports, and the notices of deficiency issued to Aspen Leaf Preschools. Management has also spoken with the licensing evaluators about the interviews they conducted. As noted in our response dated February 2, 2022 (enclosed), CCLD has confirmed that conversations with children during the complaint investigation were conducted with Aspen Leaf staff present or within line of sight of Aspen Leaf staff. CCLD has determined that the interviews were conducted in an appropriate manner and were a necessary component of the required complaint investigation.As previously stated in the February 2, 2022 letter, staff are trained to conduct interviews with children in a manner that avoids causing any undue stress. A licensing evaluator is respectful of a child’s choice to answer questions. If at any point during an interview a child expresses or exhibits apprehension or discomfort, the interview is discontinued. During the COVID-19 pandemic, licensing evaluators also maintain appropriate physical distance, conduct interviews outdoors if possible, and keep interviews with children brief.
CCLD makes every effort to be responsive to feedback from its approximately 40,600 licensed child care facilities, parents, and other stakeholders. Please know that your feedback is welcome and is critical to ensuring that our processes are consistent with CCLD’s core mission: to promote the health, safety, and quality of life of each person in licensed care through the administration of an effective and collaborative monitoring and enforcement system. Thank you again for sharing your concerns.February 2, 2022RE: COVID RESPONSE ASPEN LEAF PRESCHOOL
Dear Parent or Guardian,
Thank you for reaching out to the California Department of Social Services (CDSS or Department). The CDSS Community Care Licensing Division’s (CCLD) core mission is to promote the health, safety, and quality of life of each person in licensed care through the administration of an effective and collaborative monitoring and enforcement system. Amidst the ongoing Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, preserving and protecting the health and safety of California’s children and families continues to be of utmost importance.
On June 11, 2021, a State Public Health Officer Order was issued requiring individuals to follow the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Guidance for the Use of Face Coveringsand Guidance for Child Care Providers and Programs. This guidance requires all individuals in child care settings to wear face coverings while indoors, regardless of vaccination status, to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The guidance specifies which individuals are exempt from the face covering requirement, including children under two years of age.
Monitoring and Enforcement
CDSS is authorized to enter and inspect a licensed child care facility at any time, with or without advance notice, to secure compliance with, or prevent a violation of the California Child Day Care Facilities Act (Health and Safety Code (HSC) § 1596.70, et seq.) or the regulations adopted pursuant to the Act (Title 22, California Code of Regulations (22 CCR)). (HSC §§ 1596.852, 1597.08, 1597.09; 22 CCR § 101200(a).)
Any person may request an inspection of a child care facility by submitting to the Department notice of an alleged violation of a licensing law. CDSS is required to investigate complaints and to make an onsite inspection to ensure the health and safety of children in care. (HSC § 1596.853.)
On May 28, 2021, CDSS published Provider Information Notice (PIN)PIN 21-08-CCLD to clarify CCLD’s oversight role during the COVID-19 pandemic. The PIN notified child care facility licensees and providers that CCLD would assess compliance with statutes, regulations, and infection control practices for communicable diseases like COVID-19. A licensee may be subject to disciplinary action by CDSS for failing to follow state and local COVID-19 public health orders and guidance regarding face coverings when such failure violates a child’s personal right to safe and healthful accommodations or results in a risk or threat to the health and safety of children in care.
When visiting a facility, CCLD will verify compliance with licensing laws and ensure the health and safety of children in care. This includes verifying compliance with face covering requirements and determining whether a licensee is making a demonstrable effort to comply. If noncompliance is determined, the Department will take appropriate action as needed, which may include:
- Issuing a notice of deficiency for a health and safety or personal rights violation.
- Cross-reporting to Cal/OSHA and local public health departments.
- Assessing civil penalties for failing to correct deficiencies or for repeat violations.
- Conducting non-compliance conferences or requiring compliance plan contracts.
- Temporarily suspending or revoking a license.
CCLD has investigated a complaint alleging that Aspen Leaf Preschool was not following face covering requirements. The Department has determined that the licensee failed to ensure that staff and children used face coverings as required by the June 11, 2021 State Public Health Officer Order, thus violating the children’s personal right to safe and healthful accommodations. CDSS has provided resources, recommendations, and technical assistance to Aspen Leaf to assist them in correcting this issue and complying with COVID-19 safety requirements.
To ensure the health and safety of children receiving care in licensed facilities, it is necessary, at times, for CCLD staff to speak with children. In accordance with the laws adopted pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act (Government Code § 11340, et seq.), the Department may interview children without prior consent and, when necessary, conduct the interviews in private. (HSC § 1596.81(a); 22 CCR § 101200(b) and (b)(1).) Licensed providers are required to notify parents or guardians of the Department’s authority to interview children in their admission agreement. (22 CCR § 101219(b)(6).)
CDSS has developed a comprehensive and ongoing training program for CCLD licensing evaluators, which includes human relation skills, interview techniques, and 40 hours of training in early childhood education. Staff are trained to conduct interviews with children in a manner that avoids causing any undue stress. (See HSC § 1596.87(a)(1.) A licensing evaluator is respectful of a child’s choice to answer questions. If at any point during an interview a child expresses or exhibits apprehension or discomfort, the interview is discontinued. During the COVID-19 pandemic, licensing evaluators also maintain appropriate physical distance, conduct interviews outdoors if possible, and keep interviews with children brief. The licensing evaluators who interviewed children at the Aspen Leaf facilities on January 19, 2022 have completed this training. CCLD has confirmed that conversations with children during the complaint investigation were conducted with staff present or within line of sight of staff.
COVID-19 CDSS Staff Precautions
CDSS remains committed to taking actions that protect the health, safety, and welfare of people receiving care in licensed facilities. Infection control procedures have been implemented to ensure that CCLD staff prevent and reduce the transmission of COVID-19 during on-site facility inspections. Prior to any on-site inspection, the licensing evaluator has completed the following:
- Weekly COVID-19 testing, including receipt of current negative test results.
- A daily self-screening questionnaire to confirm the absence of any COVID-19-related symptoms.
- Training on the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
- A fitting for an N-95 respirator.
- Ensured they have adequate PPE for the inspection.
- Disinfected their vehicle and equipment to be used during the inspection.
- Prior to entering a facility, the licensing evaluator applies hand sanitizer and puts on their PPE.
CDSS has conducted outreach to licensees on an ongoing basis during the pandemic, providing them with COVID-19 Information and Resources, holding local informational calls to answer questions, and providing ongoing technical assistance to licensees. Also, CDSS continues to publish Provider Information Notices (PIN), such as PIN 21-29-CCP, which specifies requirements and provides guidance to licensed child care providers on face covering requirements.