Thursday, October 21, 2021

Arizona can’t use COVID money for anti-mask grants, Fed says

by Colin Binkley

The Biden administration on Tuesday ordered Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to stop using the state’s federal pandemic funding over a pair of new education grants that can only be directed to schools without a mask mandate.

In a letter to Ducey, the Treasury Department said the grant programs are “not a permissible use” of federal funding. It is the latest attempt by the Biden administration to backtrack against Republican governors who have opposed masked mandates and otherwise sought to use federal pandemic money to advance their own agenda.

Ducey, a Republican, created grant programs in August to put pressure on school districts, which have defied the state’s ban on mask mandates.

He started a $163 million grant program using federal funding, which he controlled, but he made it available only to schools without masks. He also set up a $10 million program that provides vouchers to families in public schools who need masks or who ask students to isolate or quarantine because of COVID-19 exposure.

In the letter, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Ademo said the conditions “undermine evidence-based efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” He asked the state to explain how it would “treat” the problem within 30 days.

Ducey spokesman CJ Karmargin said it was “shocking” why anyone would oppose the grant programs.

“Following the challenges during the 2020 school year, the primary focus of all should be equipping families with the resources to hold their children. That’s exactly what this program does – giving families in need the opportunity to access educational resources such as tutoring, childcare, transportation and more,” Karmargin said in a statement.

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He said the governor’s office is reviewing the letter and planning to respond.

Arizona is one of at least eight states that have laws or executive orders banning mask requirements in public schools.

The Department of Education launched a civil rights investigation in August into five Republican-led states that refuse to make masks mandatory in schools, saying such actions could violate the rights of students with disabilities. The agency later added Florida to the list of states under investigation. It said it was looking into whether several other states, including Arizona, need to take action.

The Department of Education has separately promised to repay those school districts that have withheld state funding for banning mask requirements. Last month, the agency sent nearly $150,000 to the school board of Alachua County in Florida after the state withheld pay for school board members because the district required masks.

Education advocates have sued Arizona’s ban and several other state laws that restrict the power of local governments and school districts to enforce COVID-19 requirements.

Those policies conflict with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends universal mask wear for students and teachers in the classroom. CDC issued the guidance in light of the rapid spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19.

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