Government tells Arizona to lift ban on school masks or lose billions in federal Covid aid
The U.S. Treasury Department has told Arizona’s Republican governor to cancel two programs aimed at preventing masks in schools within 60 days, or refund more than $1 billion in federal Covid-19 relief and forfeit the rest.
The Biden administration is challenging Arizona’s Educational Value Added Grant program, which provides $163 million to the state’s schools but requires areas that require masking to be ineligible.
Another program, called the Education Recovery Benefit Program, offers parents up to $7,000 in school vouchers if a child’s school needs to wear a mask or quarantine after exposure to the virus. Federal guidance says schoolchildren must wear masks at all times to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“By preventing families and school districts from following this guidance, the above conditions undermine efforts to stop the spread of the virus [Covid]-19,” Treasury Deputy Chief Compliance Officer Kathleen Victorino said in a letter made public on Friday. “Thus, these school curricula as currently structured are unqualified uses” Funding under the U.S. Relief Program, President Joe Biden’s March 2021 Relief Act.
Arizona has reportedly received about half of the $4.2 billion from the bill, with the rest due in April. Victorino not only asked Arizona to cancel the two projects within 60 days or face repayment of payments already received, she said “The Treasury Department may also withhold funds from Arizona’s second ARP funding until the Treasury Department receives information confirming that the above issues have been adequately addressed.”
Daniel Ruiz, Gov. Doug Ducey’s chief of staff, said Phoenix only discovered the letter from news reports.
“We think the plan is above board,” Ruiz told The Associated Press. “We will defend this program and any other future programs designed to allow children to catch up and mitigate learning losses” School closures and distance learning since the start of the pandemic.
Ruiz added that the governor intends to “Any attempts to retroactively change policies or rules are challenged at all levels of the court proceedings.”
Ducey launched another $10 million program last week to provide school vouchers to parents whose children’s schools are closed for even a day due to Covid-19.Arizona Republic newspaper described it as “It’s mostly a pre-emptive effort,” Because there have been no school closures in the state since the start of the year.