Biden administration threatens to claw back Arizona Covid funds for schools’ anti-mask policies

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U.S. First Lady Jill Biden speaks with people during a tour of a COVID-19 vaccination site at Isaac Middle School in Phoenix, Arizona, June 30, 2021.

caroline kaster | Swimming pool | Reuters

The Biden administration on Friday threatened to rescind millions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid for Arizona, accusing the state of using the funds to undermine efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s office has 60 days to either change two federally-funded public school programs totaling $ 173 million or redirect the money to “eligible uses,” the Treasury Department said in a letter.

The programs impose conditions that discourage mask-wearing compliance in schools, contradicting Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on how to reduce coronavirus transmission, the letter says.

If Arizona fails or refuses to comply with Treasury requirements, the Biden administration can claw back that stimulus money and withhold a second tranche of pandemic relief funding, the Treasury said.

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Ducey’s office did not immediately respond to TNZT’s request for comment on the letter.

The federal funds in dispute come from the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, or SLFRF, a $ 350 billion portion of the multibillion-dollar Covid relief program, dubbed the US bailout, which President Joe Biden brought forward. enacted last year.

The funds are intended “to mitigate the fiscal effects arising from the COVID-19 public health emergency, including supporting efforts to stop the spread of the virus,” Treasury noted in the letter to the Office of Strategic Planning. and Ducey’s budgeting.

But Arizona’s two school programs use federal money to “impose conditions on participation in or acceptance of service that undermine efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 and discourage adherence to evidence-based solutions. on evidence to stop the spread of COVID-19, “the letter said.

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The $163 million Education Plus-Up grant program, for example, allows funds to be disbursed only to schools that do not enforce mask requirements, the Treasury wrote.

The other program in question, totaling $10 million, provides grants to help parents pull their children out of schools that are deemed to impose “unnecessary school closures and mandates.”

This program “is only available to families if the student’s current or previous school requires the use of face coverings” during the school day, according to the Treasury letter.

The latest letter, sent by Acting Deputy Chief Compliance Officer Kathleen Victorino of the Treasury’s Office of Stimulus Programs, follows months of back-and-forth between the Biden administration and Arizona.

In October, the Treasury Department had asked Arizona to explain how it would solve the problems identified in the two school programs.

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The state responded a month later, detailing its rationale for anti-mask requirements, but failing to “describe plans to address identified issues,” Victorino wrote.

The latest battle over Covid safety rules comes as the highly transmissible omicron variant is fueling an unprecedented rise in cases. The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday blocked enforcement of the Biden administration’s rule allowing employees of big companies to get vaccinated or undergo weekly tests, but the High Court left intact a vaccination mandate for health workers.

But disputes precede omicron. Last year, the Republican-controlled Arizona legislature tried to pass provisions banning mask mandates and other Covid safety measures. In November, the state Supreme Court ruled that the measures had been adopted illegally.

TNZT’s Tom Franck contributed to this report.

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