Treasury warns Arizona it could take back pandemic aid for tying it to school mask requirements

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If Arizona does not make changes to those programs within 60 days, the Treasury Department could start recouping the funds that are being spent in violation of eligible uses, according to a letter sent to Gov. Doug Ducey’s office.

One program Treasury officials have concerns about is the $163 million Education Plus-Up Grant Program, which awards money to Arizona schools that do not require the use of masks and are open for in-person learning.
The other is the state’s Covid-19 Educational Recovery Benefit Program, which is available only to families of students whose current or prior school requires the use of masks. It’s meant to provide up to $7,000 per student whose parents are facing financial and educational barriers due to mask mandates and “unnecessary closures,” according to a state website.

The conditions imposed on these grants “undermine efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19 and discourage compliance with evidence-based solutions for stopping the spread of Covid-19,” the Treasury Department letter said.

Ducey signed a ban on school mask mandates into law in June, but it was ruled unconstitutional by a state judge in September — a decision later upheld by the Arizona Supreme Court. Some schools had chosen to defy the governor and implement a mask mandate even before the judge’s ruling.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend indoor masking in K-12 schools for students, teachers and staff, regardless of vaccination status.

A spokesman for the governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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The federal money in dispute was authorized by the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which President Joe Biden signed into law in March. The relief package created a $350 billion Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program that sent state, local and tribal governments a pot of money to support their responses to the pandemic.

The money can be used for a wide range of expenses, including providing a boost in pay to essential workers, helping small businesses recover from the pandemic and replacing lost public sector revenue.

The American Rescue Plan also sent $128 billion directly to school districts. Much of that money is still available and schools have more than three years to spend it. Staffing, summer learning and after-school programs, HVAC systems, mental health programs and technology to aid remote learning are some of the top priorities, according to a review of state spending plans by FutureED, a nonpartisan think tank at Georgetown University.

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