Arizona risks losing federal aid over anti-mask mandate

The Biden administration is threatening to withhold COVID-19 relief funds and claw back past aid from Arizona because it says the state is using the money to undermine federal guidance about masks in schools.

The Treasury Department sent a letter to Arizona officials on Friday warning that the state has 60 days to redesign two current programs that contain anti-masking provisions.

Federal officials argue the two programs are designed to direct funding away from school districts that have introduced mask mandates in line with the CDC’s guidance.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey rolled out the two programs late last year amid a dispute with the Biden administration over how the state could use the $4.2 billion it was awarded under the 2021 coronavirus relief bill.

Under the first program, districts that require masks in schools are currently ineligible to receive any of the $163 million in funding under Arizona’s Education Plus-Up Grant Program.

The state’s separate $10 million COVID-19 Educational Recovery Benefit Program provides up to $7,000 in vouchers to help families leave districts if their child’s school requires face masks.

The Treasury Department sent the letter to state officials on Friday, Jan. 14.
REUTERS

The Treasury Department argues that the way Arizona’s school programs are currently structured is an “ineligible” use of the federal pandemic aid.

“By discouraging families and school districts from following (the CDC’s) guidance, the conditions referenced above undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19,” the Treasury Department wrote in its letter.

Treasury officials said they will start recovering the federal relief money Arizona has already been sent, and will withhold the next lot of aid, if the state doesn’t amend the provisions.

Arizona has already received about half of the $4.2 billion the state was awarded under President Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package.

Two young boys wait to receive their COVID vaccines in Phoenix in Nov. 2021.
Two young boys wait to receive their COVID vaccines in Phoenix in Nov. 2021.
AP

Gov. Ducey slammed the Biden administration on Friday, saying the threats to withhold aid from his state was “latest example of a President that is completely out of touch with the American people.”

“When it comes to education, President Biden wants to continue focusing on masks. In Arizona, we’re going to focus on math and getting kids caught up after a year of learning loss,” he tweeted.

“We will respond to this letter, and we will continue to focus on things that matter to Arizonans. President Biden should do the same, and he can start by addressing the crisis at the border.”

Gov. Ducey is among a handful of GOP governors who have ripped Biden over federal mask, testing or vaccine mandates throughout the pandemic.