To be eligible for the grant funding — $163 million in total — Arizona school districts must be open for in-person learning as of August 27 and must be “following all state laws,” including the ban on school mask mandates that Ducey signed into law in June.
“Parents are in the driver’s seat, and it’s their right to make decisions that best fit the needs of their children. Safety recommendations are welcomed and encouraged — mandates that place more stress on students and families aren’t,” the governor said in a statement Tuesday. “These grants acknowledge efforts by schools and educators that are following state laws and keeping their classroom doors open for Arizona’s students.”
Tuesday’s announcement marks a notable escalation in Ducey’s efforts to prohibit mask mandates in schools, even as public health experts have touted masks as an important mitigation measure while Covid-19 cases surge nationwide. A handful of Arizona districts have imposed mask mandates despite the state law that prohibits them, arguing that the ban cannot go into effect until mid-September at the earliest, making their current mandates legal.
In response to the grant funding exclusions, US Rep. Greg Stanton, an Arizona Democrat, wrote an open letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen asking that agency consider withholding the federal Covid relief money from the state.
“This deeply irresponsible plan appears to violate the plain language of the law as written by Congress as well as the guidance issued by the Department of the Treasury. These funds are not intended to be used for policies that undercut scientific research to pursue purely partisan ideological priorities,” Stanton wrote.
The Treasury Department, he said, needs to “make clear to the governor that if he follows through with this reckless proposal, he risks losing these funds for Arizona. These resources should — and must — be made available to all Arizona schools.”
Kathy Hoffman, the state’s Democratic superintendent of public instruction, tweeted: “This is yet another outrageous attack on public education by the Governor when he should be listening to school leaders and educators on what is needed to keep students safe, and schools open.”
In addition to the threat over new funding, Ducey on Tuesday announced a grant program for students who attend schools that require masks, allowing them to use the money for education expenses like transportation and tuition costs at a different school. The program is also funded with federal Covid relief money.
At least six other states — Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Utah — prohibit districts from requiring masks in schools.