Ducey: Schools won’t get COVID aid money if they require masks

By: - August 17, 2021 9:35 pm

Photo by Peoria Unified School District via AZEdNews

A day after a judge ruled that a new state law barring Arizona public and charter schools from requiring mask use can’t be enforced until late September, Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday said school districts considering enacting temporary mask mandates won’t receive some federal COVID-19 relief money unless they call off those plans.

And those who have already enacted mask mandates seemingly won’t be able to claim pandemic aid payments they were expecting.

“We have grave concerns about how the money is being used. This is not what Congress intended,” said Richie Taylor, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education.

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One congressman, Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Phoenix), is already accusing Ducey of misusing his authority to disburse relief money by only giving it to schools that ignore Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that schools require teachers, students and visitors wear masks for in-person learning.

“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,” Stanton wrote in a letter Tuesday to the Treasury Department. “These funds are not intended to be used for policies that undercut scientific research to pursue purely partisan ideological priorities.”

The threat of losing federal aid only applies to 155 of the state’s 732 districts and charter schools — and more than 80% of those who face the prospect of losing money that Congress and the Biden administration intended to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus pandemic are charter schools.

The $163 million that Ducey is dangling in front of those 155 school districts and charter schools was sent to Arizona as part of the American Rescue Plan, the latest round of COVID-19 stimulus aid. The money is aimed at ensuring school districts and charter schools that didn’t qualify for aid in earlier relief packages aren’t left behind, and is limited to those that didn’t already receive at least $1,800 per student.

Taylor said it is mostly smaller charter schools and school districts with low poverty rates that were counting on money from the Education Plus-Up Grant Program that Ducey’s office has been designing for months.

An analysis of the eligible schools by the Arizona Mirror found only 25 traditional public school districts among the 155 eligible educational entities. Another four were vocational or technical education districts, while the rest are charter schools.

Among those expecting an Education Plus-Up grant are seven districts or charters that the Department of Education says have instituted mask mandates for in-person learning, which appears to disqualify them from receiving a grant. The program requires that the district or charter school follow “all state laws” throughout the school year — and specifically a law created as part of the state budget that bars school districts and charter schools from mandating mask use on their campuses.

Those districts and schools are: 

  • Arizona School For The Arts
  • Catalina Foothills Unified District
  • Khalsa Family Services
  • Kyrene Elementary District
  • Madison Elementary District
  • Northland Preparatory Academy
  • Tempe Union High School District

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A judge on Monday refused to stop Phoenix Union High School District from enforcing the mask mandate it passed earlier this month, before students returned for the 2021-22 school year. In his ruling, the judge overruled language Republican lawmakers included to make the policy retroactive to June 30, saying that it didn’t meet the constitutional requirement of a two-thirds supermajority for the law to go into effect early.

There were some 20 school districts and charter schools that had enacted mask mandates prior to Monday’s ruling on the belief that the new law couldn’t block them from doing so until late September. After the ruling, several others implemented their own masking requirements. 

And the law’s constitutionality is also being challenged by a coalition of education groups and others that are asking a court to overturn a host of new statutes included in the state budget that they say aren’t related to state spending and were only inserted to win support from holdout Republican legislators.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications, the Yellow Sheet Report and Arizona Legislative Report. Under his guidance, the Capitol Times won numerous state, regional and national awards for its accountability journalism and probing investigations into state government operations.

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