Government tells Arizona to lift mask ban in schools or lose billions in federal Covid aid
The US Treasury Department has asked the Republican governor of Arizona to scrap two programs aimed at discouraging school mask mandates within 60 days, or return more than $1 billion in federal Covid-19 aid and give up the rest.
The Biden administration is challenging Arizona’s Education Plus-Up grant program, which offered $163 million in funding to schools in the state but made districts that require masking ineligible.
Another initiative, called the Educational Recovery Benefit Program, offers up to $7,000 in school vouchers to parents if their child’s school requires masks or quarantine after exposure to the virus. Federal guidelines state that masks must be worn at all times by school children, in order to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“By discouraging families and school districts from following this advice, the conditions mentioned above undermine efforts to stop the spread of [Covid]-19″, Deputy Treasury Compliance Officer Kathleen Victorino said in a letter made public on Friday. “As a result, these school programs as currently structured are ineligible uses” funds provided under the US bailout, President Joe Biden’s March 2021 relief bill.
Arizona reportedly received about half of the $4.2 billion bill and is expected to receive the rest in April. Not only did Victorino ask Arizona to abolish both programs within 60 days or refund the money already received, but she said that “Treasury may also withhold funds from the second tranche of Arizona State ARP funds until Treasury receives information confirming that the issues described above have been properly addressed.”
Governor Doug Ducey’s chief of staff, Daniel Ruiz, said Phoenix only discovered the letter through news reports.
“We think this program is above all advice,” Ruiz told AP. “We will champion this program and any other future programs designed to catch up with children and mitigate learning loss” due to school closures and distance learning since the start of the pandemic.
Ruiz added that the governor intends to “challenging at all levels in terms of legal process any attempt by them to retroactively change policies or rules.”
Ducey introduced another $10 million scheme last week, offering school vouchers to parents whose children’s schools even close for a day due to Covid-19. The Arizona Republic newspaper described him as “largely a preventive effort”, since there have been no school closures in the state since the start of the year.