The Biden administration has issued a letter to Arizona threatening to take back COVID-19 relief funds sent to the state, saying that Arizona’s provisions discourage schools from mandating masks.
In a letter (pdf) sent on Jan. 14, the Treasury Department warned the state of Arizona that it has 60 days to remove or redesign the anti-mask-mandate provisions that the Biden administration deems to be “inconsistent with the purpose and requirements” of the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) program.
Failure to do so “may result in Treasury initiating an action to recoup SLFRF funds used in violation of the eligible uses,” and the department “may also withhold funds from the State of Arizona’s second tranche installment of SLFRF funds.”
The Treasury Department takes issue with two of the state’s programs. The first is Arizona’s Education Plus-Up Grant Program, which provides $163 million in funding to schools. However, districts that require masks aren’t eligible for the grant funds.
The second is the COVID-19 Educational Recovery Benefit program, which provides for up to $7,000 for parents—only if they meet income requirements and if the child’s school “is isolating, quarantining, or subjecting children to physical COVID-19 constraints in schools, such as requiring the use of masks or providing preferential treatment to vaccinated students—contrary to the provisions established in Laws 2021, Chapter 404, section 12.”
The relevant section reads, “A school district or charter school may not require a student or teacher to receive a vaccine for COVID-19 or to wear a face covering to participate in in-person instruction.”
Kathleen Victorino, acting deputy chief compliance officer of the U.S. Treasury Office of Recovery Programs, wrote in the letter that federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends universal masking indoors by all students, staff, teachers, and visitors to K–12 schools.
“By discouraging families and school districts from following this guidance, the conditions referenced above undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Victorino wrote. “Accordingly, these school programs as currently structured are ineligible uses of SLFRF funds.”
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey criticized the letter.
“When it comes to education, President [Joe] 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 wrote on Twitter on Jan. 14. “We will respond to this letter, and we will continue to focus on things that matter to Arizonans.”
Arizona has received about half of the almost $4.2 billion awarded to the state (pdf) under the SLFRF program, a part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The program delivers $350 billion to state, local, and tribal governments across the United States to support COVID-19 response and recovery.