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Treasury Department says Arizona must stop COVID-19 grants for schools without mask mandates

The U.S. Treasury Department ordered Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to stop using federal COVID-19 relief funds to pay for two school grant programs that discourage public schools from issuing mask mandates.

In a letter to the governor, Deputy Treasury Secretary Adewale Adeyemo wrote the conditions Ducey created for the programs are “not a permissible use” of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, which were provided to state and local governments to “contain the spread and mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in their communities.”

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Ducey designated $163 million in federal funds for grants to public and charter schools, but only those who don’t mandate masks on campus and keep classrooms open for in-person instruction. Another $10 million was set aside to provide $7,000 vouchers to parents who want to remove their children from schools with mask mandates.

When announcing the programs in August, Ducey described mask mandates and remote learning requirements for students exposed to the coronavirus as “overbearing measures.”

To treasury officials, those measures are “evidence-based solutions for stopping the spread of COVID-19,” Adeyemo wrote.

A spokesman for Ducey defended the programs as an effort to give families the resources they need to get caught up after a challenging 2020 school year.

“While the Biden administration continues to focus on mandates, here in Arizona we trust families to make decisions around what’s best for their children,” spokesman CJ Karamargin said.

→  List: Arizona school districts requiring masks for 2021-2022 school year

Ducey has 30 business days to respond to federal officials with a plan to fix the issues identified with the school grant programs. If not, the U.S. Treasury Department may demand the state pay back those funds.

Ducey announced the programs after signing a law banning mask mandates in public schools, but that law has since been ruled unconstitutional. Republican lawmakers have appealed that ruling to the Arizona Supreme Court.

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Ben Giles is a senior editor at KJZZ.