Roundtable: The mass exodus of refugees from the war in Ukraine
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This week on roundtable the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine , as millions flee the war zone , we try to understand what they're experiencing and how young is too young when it comes to enforcing mask mandates.
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Parents at a local preschool say their kids , some not even two years old , were questioned by the state.
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I'm Matt Hoffman and this is KPBS Roundtable.
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Women and children , the elderly , wounded civilians , people with disabilities are trying to escape cities where there's no heat , no electricity.
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Relentless bombardment and where they're running out of food and medicine.
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And there continue to be reports of attacks by Russian forces on agreed upon humanitarian corridors.
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The world is saying to Russia , stop these attacks immediately.
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Let the food and medicine in , let the people out safely and end this war of choice against Ukraine.
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That's U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week in Eastern Europe , where the world is witnessing a humanitarian catastrophe.
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More than two million people are leaving everything they know behind in Ukraine.
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Aside from mass slaughter of civilians , Russia has destroyed infrastructure , homes and livelihoods.
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Even places that pose no tactical interest like a bread factory and a shopping mall have all been targeted by bombs.
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This week on roundtable , we want perspective on what these victims of war are enduring and the global response to their struggle , and in some cases , the contradictions that we're seeing compared to other conflicts.
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Kate Morrissey has reported extensively on the refugee experience for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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She's here on a roundtable now.
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Thanks so much for joining us , Kate.
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Thank you for having me.
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So let's start with your general reaction to what we've been seeing in Ukraine the past couple of weeks.
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Well , I mean , as far as what's actually happening in Ukraine , I'm seeing the same news reports and photos and interviews that all of us are seeing , which is , you know , describing a very sudden and intense situation in which people are having to flee for their lives and are becoming forcibly displaced.
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And so I think it was only a matter of time before some number of people fleeing the Russian invasion ended up here in Tijuana at our border.
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Because pretty much any time I see something like this breaking out somewhere in the world a conflict , a major humanitarian crisis , a major human rights crisis , sooner or later , I will meet someone in Tijuana who is from there and who has fled that situation.
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We're already seeing at least one Ukrainian family run into problems trying to flee to the U.S..
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You reported on a mother and her three children who are now stuck in Tijuana.
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They arrived on Wednesday.
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Can you tell us about their journey and their story ? So they were turned away from the border on Wednesday.
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They were also turned away from the border on , I think , Monday.
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They had flown to Tijuana , and they have a relative who lives in California , who is a U.S. citizen who went to pick them up and tried to drive with them into the United States.
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They didn't try to sneak them in at all.
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They just drove up to the border and explained , This is my family.
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They fled the war.
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Where do I go to request appropriate permission for them ? And they were told that was not possible.
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On Wednesday , the woman and her three children tried again on foot to walk up to the San Ysidro Port of Entry and request to come in to ask for asylum.
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The official standing at the border line where U.S. soil begins , waved them to the side while they were still on Mexican soil after he saw their passports and they waited there and eventually another U.S. official through the fence asked them what they were doing there and told them that there was no way for them to come in and ask for asylum.
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A Mexican police officer started coming around to tell them they needed to leave.
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At the same time , there was an immigration attorney who just happened to be there.
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And so that attorney started to step in and try to help the family , and that's how word got out that this was even happening to them.
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This is all based on a policy that has been affecting people fleeing situations all around the world now for years , which is Title 42 that allows officials to just turn people back if they don't have documents to enter the United States and if they do enter without permission to expel them.
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Recently , we've been hearing a lot about Russians and Eastern Europeans using Cancun as the way to come into Mexico to come request asylum at the border , and that is what was happening before the war.
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But now she actually took a very different route.
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She drove through several countries , made her way to Romania from Ukraine and then flew through Frankfurt to Mexico City and then to Tijuana.
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So it's a little bit different path that she's taking.
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I don't know if that's just her or if or if other Ukrainians are going to be following a similar path.
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But that was something new that I hadn't heard from other other folks before.
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Is there any indication that these policies might be reconsidered ? You know , especially now that the COVID situation is more manageable here ? It's not clear.
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I have seen some reporting from unnamed administration sources that they're considering doing something different.
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But we've from time to time hear rumors like that , and nothing has changed.
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So I'm very hesitant to say anything has changed until we actually have some kind of confirmation that it's changing.
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There was recently a court case decision regarding Title 42 that if it goes into effect in a couple of months , would require the administration to make some changes to how they're implementing it.
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But it's not even clear exactly how they would do those changes yet.
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So a lot is is very much up in the air.
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But you know , if anybody asks me right now , have things changed at the border ? No , they have not.
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The Union Tribune's Kate Morrissey is our guest.
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And Kate , you've told the story of refugees and asylum seekers from places like.
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Cameroon , Haiti and Central American countries.
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What are they told you about the emotional trauma that comes with this sort of experience ? Yeah , any any time you're forced to flee your home , you have experienced trauma , the act of having to leave everything behind the whatever violence happens to you that made you feel like that was the decision you had to make.
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All of those things are very traumatic.
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A lot of people who have been through these situations can definitely end up with things like PTSD , that they need mental health support to work through.
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So many of the interviews I've done with people who have fled these situations , the person I'm talking with does not get through talking about this without having to stop to cry at some point.
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The woman I spoke with yesterday about having to leave her mother behind and what her mother is telling her now about not having enough food or medicine or having to hide in her basement.
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She had to just stop for a second and cry , and then she asked me to ask her another question so that she could refocus her mind from thinking about that.
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The Biden administration was quick to offer a temporary protected status.
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It's also known as TPS to Ukrainians that are already inside the United States.
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Do we know how that will help people ? Temporary protected status means that the United States will not deport you.
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It's basically a protection from deportation.
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It does not give someone a green card.
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It does not give someone permanent residency in the United States.
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But as long as that status is extended , people who have that status will be able to stay here.
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So for people from Ukraine who are inside the United States on the date that it went into effect , they can apply for it and remain here.
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They won't be forced to go back to a country that is in the midst of war.
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CPB's and others have covered the local response to all this.
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Organizations like the House of Ukraine and Balboa Park and others are collecting donations.
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There's also more professional aid organizations.
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Here's James Elder.
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He's a global spokesperson for UNICEF , describing the toll this is taking on Ukrainian children.
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We have almost a million children who are refugees , a million kids , refugees in under two weeks.
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This is unprecedented globally.
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It's happening as we speak it , and it will continue unless we , you know , we see a cessation of hostilities and this this bombing to stop.
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Otherwise , we will keep saving lives as we just saw there shattered.
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Again , that's UNICEF spokesperson James Elder.
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We also saw a children's hospital destroyed this week by Russia and images of pregnant women escaping from the rubble.
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Generally , Kate , what can you tell us about the challenges of caring for children who are among these refugees ? I would say the thing that I hear the most often from asylum seeking families , from refugee families and former refugee families is the concern about the disruption that having to flee their home has on their children's education.
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There are kids who miss years of school because they are in transit from the place they had to flee and where they ultimately hope to find safety.
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And in that time , you know , they may or may not have access to classrooms at all.
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Some children have access to maybe some form of a teacher , but it's it's not the same as having the school that they were in and making that progress , and especially with the kinds of trauma that this can cause in a child who doesn't fully understand what's happening and doesn't necessarily have the tools to process that trauma , it can make it very difficult for them to have the motivation and energy to try to continue with their education , even if an opportunity arises for them to do so.
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And so I know that that is a constant concern among families who are having to flee.
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Beyond that , children who have any kind of medical needs , it can be very difficult for families to obtain the right medicine or right care , especially for children , because they need someone who specializes in children's medicine in order to get the appropriate care for those kids.
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When we're looking at the most basic needs that someone in the United States would expect their child to be able to have met.
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Those things are not generally available to people who are fleeing their countries.
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The war in Ukraine is far from the only military conflict , but it's dominating the coverage right now.
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Is there something to be said for why this war is , you know , getting all the headlines here ? There's some media critics pointing out that places like Yemen and parts of West Africa are just not getting the same focus.
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You know , I have seen that criticism a lot.
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I've asked that that question in my own head.
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There is a critique being made that this war is being covered because the people that it affects are white.
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And in many of these other places , that's not necessarily the case.
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And so when you have images of white people fleeing and when you have governments opening their arms to the white people who are fleeing but turning away black and brown people who are fleeing , you know that that raises a pretty big question.
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At the very least.
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And I think that's where a lot of this critique is coming from.
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You know , when you look even a year or two ago , there was a conflict that broke out in the Tigray region of Ethiopia and the conflict was actually happening at one point.
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On top of a refugee camp.
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So you had people who had already been displaced from their homes , who were living in a camp trying to figure out where to go and what was going to happen in their lives.
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And then a war happened or a conflict happened on top of where they were already living.
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And we saw next to no coverage of that situation.
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And so it definitely raises a question.
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And finally , Kate , you're on the ground here covering this every single day.
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What do you think our audience should know about the refugee experience that , you know , maybe we haven't touched on here ? Well , I think one of the things that really struck me in speaking with the family yesterday was some of the ways in which the story that they told me had similarities with the stories of people who are fleeing so many places.
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You know , the pain of having to leave the decision of where to go based on where you have loved ones.
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The family from yesterday has relatives in the United States who told them , Come here and we will take care of you.
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So they came here instead of going somewhere else in the world.
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And I think that's a decision that a lot of people make when they they flee their homes.
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And it just the concern that people are showing for Ukrainians who are fleeing.
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If people can see those similarities with some of the people who are fleeing other places because those stories , while each individual is unique and has their own details and their own perspectives and experiences , there are those themes.
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And I think that might help people to understand that experience more generally.
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I've been speaking with Kate Morrissey.
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She's a reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune.
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And Kate , thanks so much for your time today.
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Thanks for having me.
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San Diegans are doing what they can to help Ukrainians.
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Among the many local organizations collecting donations is the House of Ukrainian Balboa Park.
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The Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe is pledging $50000.
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It's going to go toward relief efforts for pets displaced by the war.
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They're encouraging supporters to match that amount for a goal of $100000.
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And we have an update on that Ukrainian family that was stuck in Tijuana Thursday.
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They were granted asylum and allowed to cross that San Ysidro.
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As Kate mentioned , they have family here in California who will care for them during this difficult time.
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Late last week , San Diego Unified announced a long awaited change to its COVID mask policies.
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There'll be a thing of the past come April 4th for younger kids in preschool , the state's indoor mask mandate.
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It's already over , with the requirement ending today , Friday , March 11th.
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That's a relief for one preschool provider in San Diego , which was recently cited for not having its kids mask up during the recent Omicron Peak.
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And many of the parents are upset over how investigators went about it.
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Voice of San Diego reporter Wil Huntsberry is back.
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His latest story describes what parents call a masquerade in which kids , not even two years old , were questioned by state workers.
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Good to have you back on roundtable.
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Well , good to be here , Matt.
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So we're talking about Aspen Leaf Preschool.
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They have locations up in Mission Hills , North Park and downtown.
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If you can set the scene for us here , what's the age group that these preschool serve everything from toddlers to little kids ? Like you said , there's three locations and they all serve really one to four year olds , and Aspen Leaf has had a unique policy in place for quite some time.
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They've not been masking children , you know , even though there is a state mandate that preschools are supposed to do that and they've been really open about that policy from the start.
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And parents know about it and and their reasoning for doing it is that they say kids are eating in school , kids are sleeping in school.
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And so they're there for like three hours a day in close quarters with no mask on.
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So they feel like people are going to get covered no matter what , because they're not wearing masks so often and they think it hurts kids development as well.
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So that was their reason.
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Now what happened in January that parents say just went too far ? I'll step back even further in December and then get to January.
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In December , the Aspen Leaf preschools were visited a couple of times by state regulators.
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The state regulators didn't see anything that they felt was too big a deal.
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They didn't even mention masks at the time.
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They did send a follow up email saying , Hey , the policy is to mask.
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You need the mask.
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Then in January , the child care licensing department got a complaint from a parent.
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The Aspen Leaf was not masking.
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They contacted the owner or the part owner , Howard Woo , and they said , You know , we got a complaint.
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You're supposed to mask.
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You need a mask.
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Howard Woo thinks that child care licensing doesn't actually have the authority to enforce this regulation.
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And so he told them that , and he said , I'm not planning on doing it.
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And so regulators showed up at all three Aspen Leaf facilities.
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At the same time , they interviewed kids , and this is what parents were really upset about.
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You know , they took kids into rooms by themselves and they interviewed them about the masking policy.
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The California Department of Social Services.
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They can ask questions to kids without an adult present , but that's usually reserved for cases of alleged child abuse.
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Do we know if mask wearing meets that bar or what are you hearing from them ? I mean , I can tell you that parents certainly don't think it meets the bar.
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You know , they like the mask policy.
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And whether you like the mask policy or not , you know , these parents thought it was just way too far to put their kids in a room alone to ask about a policy that the regulators already were well aware of.
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So parents are very clear that they don't think it met the standard at all.
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One of them had just told their child not to speak to strangers.
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And just within a few days , you know , then the child is in a room being questioned by a stranger.
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And yeah , yeah , a lot of parents at Aspen leave very upset.
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And we know that you had said that this was not the first time that state workers checked in on Aspen Leaf.
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You wrote in your story that one of the locations was visited prior to this so-called raid in January.
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They had found that kids were not masked up at the time and there was no citation issued then.
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So I'm curious , was there a follow up on all three locations or like , were they checking for continued non-compliance ? There was not a follow up on all three locations , at least not until there was.
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The complaint is how it appears from the paperwork.
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I've seen the investigators visited in December and they didn't issue a citation and they did , you know , they sent an email saying , Please wear your masks , and that was the extent of it until a complaint came from a parent.
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And that's when this big tussle over enforcement started.
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I'm talking with voice of San Diego senior investigative reporter Wil Huntsberry and will.
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Maybe the most concerning example here is the daughter of Constance Wu.
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She was interviewed for your story.
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She says that her daughter , not yet even two years old , is too young to even describe what happened in this raid , right ? That's right.
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I spoke to Miss Wu , and she was very , very upset because she can't really even talk to her daughter about.
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What happened , you know , a lot of these parents who their child was interviewed.
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They've been trying to backtrack and talk to their children and ask what happened and ask their children how they felt about it for Connie.
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She can't even do that because her child , you know , in her own words , really is just not developmentally able to have like a really complex conversation about being interviewed by a stranger.
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You know , she was one years old when this happened , and we know that at least one family has filed a complaint about how all this was handled.
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What do they want to see done about this ? Several families actually had filed complaints with the Department of Social Services that's who oversees the child care licensing department.
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And what they've told me is that they want accountability.
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The mask policy , as you said in the intro , has already changed.
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So now Aspen Leaf can go back to not masking if they would like.
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But these parents think that this was a really inappropriate use of their ability to interview kids in an isolated room.
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And so I think they they want to see investigators held accountable.
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They want to see supervisors held accountable.
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They want to know who made what decisions.
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And you know , they've been asking these questions to child care licensing , but they haven't gotten any answers so far.
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So some parents are saying that this is inappropriate , but the state looked into these visits and they say that it was appropriate.
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What's their reasoning there ? You know , I reached out to them , of course , and they haven't really given much reasoning at all.
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They did say that they think the interviews were appropriate , and they did say also that children were in the line of sight of teachers from Aspen Leaf.
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So , you know , if you can imagine at a preschool , you know , a lot of the doors have windows.
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And so in some instances , teachers were standing at the window and looking through it.
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And so that's kind of been all that the state said.
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We believe these interviews were appropriate and we insisting to you that children could see familiar adults at all times , even if they were in a room with the door closed.
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And I spoke to one teacher who did verify that account.
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But she also said she asked to come into the room because she she thought the child would be more comfortable and the regulators were like not the owner of Aspen Leaf.
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He had questioned the department's authority to enforce mask wearing in this way.
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He thinks that these visits were the result of that questioning.
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Why does he think that his business was targeted ? Yeah.
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Howard Woo is a lawyer , not just a preschool owner.
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And so , you know , he's looked into the regulations really closely , and he thinks that child care licensing truly does not have the authority to enforce the mask mandate.
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That's because the mandate itself was issued by the California Department of Public Health and not by child care licensing.
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So it's kind of a technicality.
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And so basically , Mr. Wu feels like because he pushed back against child care licensing and because he told them , Hey , like , you don't have this authority , I'm not planning on following it.
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He thinks that's a big part of why child care licensing came after him.
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Well , just about everything during the pandemic has been politicized one way or another , and this story is no different.
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I'm curious , how has conservative media covering all this ? Yeah , it's been really interesting to see Matt.
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I knew masking was really politicized when I wrote this story , and I wondered maybe if , like KUSI would pick it up.
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But it's been huge in conservative media.
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Fox News picked up the story , the Daily Mail picked up the story , and for them , I think they see this as an instance of mask mandates gone too far.
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And oftentimes , conservative media loves to pick on California.
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I don't think we need to sidestep that right ? And so in this instance , they're saying , you know , look , this mask mandate doesn't need to be in place.
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Look how far California is going to enforce it.
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I think I hate to see any story that I work on get politicized.
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But I think , you know , in this case , there are real questions about overreach by the state and whether these interviews were appropriate.
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I'm not sure that's the reason that conservative media's having a field day with this story , but I hope we'll be able to wrestle with those legitimate questions.
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And along the lines of overreach there.
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Do we know if this is like an isolated incident or have state agents been doing these , like up and down California ? Well , I asked child care licensing whether this was a common practice , and that was one of the questions that they did not get back to me on.
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There haven't been a lot of other stories like this that have emerged , and we know child care licensing has not issued that many of its severest citation types , as it did in Aspen Leaf's case.
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So , you know , we really don't know the answer , but the evidence we have suggests that maybe this was an isolated incident.
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So now that the mask requirement is ending or has ended , does this issue go away ? I know you mentioned that the owners , an attorney like , is there more for Aspen Leaf to do even as it relates to these parental complaints ? Well , the parents are still really upset and still looking for answers.
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And I talked to Mr. Wu earlier in the week , and he is supposed to be meeting with child care licensing.
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And so we'll see if anything else comes to this.
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Obviously , the mask mandate is over , but I think the issue that may continue is that these parents feel their children's rights were violated.
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Sounds like more will be coming.
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We've been speaking with Voice of San Diego reporter Wil Huntsberry.
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You can read his article at Voice of San Diego dot com.
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Well , thanks so much for your time today.
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Thank you , man.
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Thanks so much for tuning into this week's edition of KPBS Roundtable , and thank you to my guests , Kate Morrissey from the San Diego Union-Tribune and Will Huntsberry from Voice of San Diego.
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If you missed any part of our show , you can listen anytime on the KPBS Roundtable podcast.
00:25:53.420 --> 00:25:54.270
I'm Matt Hoffman.
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Join us next week on Roundtable.
KPBS reporter Matt Hoffman talks with San Diego Union-Tribune immigration reporter Kate Morrissey about the traumatic experience for refugees from Ukraine and other war zones. Also, Voice of San Diego investigative reporter Will Huntsberry tells us about the pushback from parents after kids at a local preschool were questioned by state workers over a lack of mask wearing.