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Don’t Use Federal COVID Aid to Undermine School Mask Rules, U.S. Treasury Tells Governor

By Evie Blad — October 06, 2021 2 min read
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks at the Arizona Capitol in Phoenix on Nov. 30, 2020. A program announced by Arizona's Republican governor last month to give private school vouchers to students whose parents object to school mask requirements has seen a surge of applications, with twice as many either completed or started than can be funded with the $10 million in federal coronavirus relief cash he earmarked for the program.
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The U.S. Department of the Treasury has become the latest federal agency to wade into the debate over school mask requirements.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey violated permissible use requirements of federal COVID-19 relief aid when he used it to create two grant programs to disincentivize school mask mandates, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo warned the Republican state leader in a letter Tuesday.

“We are concerned that two recently created Arizona grant programs undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Adeyemo wrote, giving the state 30 days to “remedy” issues identified with the two programs or face further action, including possible repayment of funds to the federal government.

Last month Ducey used part of his state’s funding from the $350 billion State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program, part of the American Rescue Plan, to create the two programs discussed in the letter. One $10 million program provides up to $7,000 to cover educational costs for a student who wishes to transfer out of a school that requires facial coverings. The other, a $163 million grant program, provides additional per-pupil funding for schools if they meet certain conditions, including not requiring students to wear masks during the school day. The state has distributed at least $109 million of that funding, AZCentral reports.

Ducey defended his use of federal aid on Twitter Tuesday, saying he wanted to give families options.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said universal and proper wearing of masks is a key strategy to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread within school buildings.

Research published by the agency last month shows that schools that require masks are less likely to face pandemic-related closures. One study of two large Arizona counties by Arizona State University researchers found that schools that required face masks were 3.5 times less likely to have a coronavirus outbreak by mid-September than those without such a rule.

Such research has led leaders, including Arizona Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, to push back on Arizona’s mask restrictions. The state’s “school communities are tired of being political pawns in dangerous attempts to subvert democracy and ignore science,” she said in a statement last month after a judge blocked a state law that bans local mask mandates.

Arizona is one of nine states have banned schools from setting universal mask mandates, according to an Education Week tracker. Some of those bans, including Arizona’s, have been halted or paused by courts.

The warning from the Treasury Department is the latest move from the Biden administration to confront GOP governors over their resistance to schools’ virus mitigation efforts.

The U.S. Department of Education has opened investigations into mask mandate bans in seven states to determine if they violate disability rights laws. Advocates for students with disabilities, who are more likely to become severely ill from COVID-19, have said inadequate virus precautions limit their ability to safely learn in-person.

The Education Department has also created a federal grant program to repay local school districts for any state financial penalties they face as a consequence of defying state bans on mask rules.

School Mask Mandates at a Glance

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