Arizona Ordered to Stop Using Federal COVID-19 Funds for Anti-Mask Grant Programs

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey was ordered Tuesday to stop using federal COVID-19 funds allocated to the state for education grants that can be given only to schools that don't require masks, the Associated Press reported.

The order marks the latest action President Joe Biden's administration to oppose Republican governors who are seeking to prevent mask mandates or trying to use federal funding to support their political agendas rather than pandemic recovery.

Ducey established the grant programs in August in an effort to push back against school districts that imposed mask mandates, despite a statewide ban on such requirements, the AP said. The Republican governor funneled $163 million into one grant program that was available only to schools without mask requirements.

Another program, to which $10 million was allocated, provided vouchers to families at state public schools that mandate masks or require students to quarantine when exposed to the coronavirus, the AP said. A letter sent to Ducey by the U.S. Treasury Department said that the grant programs are "not a permissible use" of the COVID funding.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey
The Biden administration has ordered Arizona Governor Doug Ducey to stop using the state's federal COVID-19 funding for grants given only to schools without mask mandates. Above, Ducey speaks at a press conference in Phoenix on December 2, 2020. Ross D. Franklin/AP Photo

In the letter sent to Ducey, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said the conditions "undermine evidence-based efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19." He asked the state to explain how it will "remediate" the problem within 30 days.

Arizona is one of at least eight states that have laws or executive orders banning mask requirements in public schools.

The Education Department in August opened civil rights investigations into five Republican-led states that forbid mask mandates in schools, saying such actions may violate the rights of students with disabilities. The agency later added Florida to the list of states under investigation. It said it was watching several other states in case it needed to take action, including in Arizona.

The Education Department separately promised to repay school districts that have state funding withheld for defying bans on mask requirements. Last month, the agency sent nearly $150,000 to the School Board of Alachua County in Florida after the state withheld pay for school board members because the district requires masks.

Education advocates have filed a lawsuit over Arizona's ban and several other state laws that restrict the power of local governments and school districts to impose COVID-19 requirements.

Those policies conflict with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends universal mask wearing for students and teachers in the classroom. The CDC issued the guidance in light of the rapid spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus.

Kids Wear Masks in Schools
Students wear face masks as they attend their first day of school after summer vacation at St. Lawrence Catholic School, near Miami, on August 18. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images