Two Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation are asking federal officials to review the legality of Gov. Doug Ducey using Covid relief dollars to benefit only schools that do not require masks.
In a letter Wednesday to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Rep. Raul Grijalva said the dollars from the American Rescue Plan that Ducey is using were intended to support states in their efforts to “reopen K-12 schools safely and equitably expand opportunities for students who need it most.” Yet what is happening, the congressman said, is the governor is punishing schools that actually follow the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.
Those guidelines, issued in the wake of the spread of the Delta variant, recommend “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” And the CDC says children should return to full-time, in-person instruction “with layered prevention strategies in place.”
Instead, Ducey announced on Tuesday he is dividing up nearly $163 million in rescue plan dollars among schools — but only those schools that do not have a mask mandate in place as of Aug. 27. And the governor set that date for compliance even though a judge ruled just a day earlier that the legislative ban on mask mandates does not take effect until Sept. 29.
“Gov. Ducey is yet again pursuing reckless and inhumane proposals that will continue to exacerbate this public health crisis,” Grijalva wrote. “In addition, it puts into question the legality around him restricting public health mitigation measures in the first place.”
Rep. Greg Stanton, in a separate letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, said he already is sure that Ducey is acting illegally.
“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,” he wrote. “These funds are not intended to be used for policies that undercut scientific research to pursue purely partisan ideological priorities.”
And Stanton wants action.
“I urge the Treasury Department to make clear to the governor that if he follows through with this reckless proposal, he risks losing these funds for Arizona,” he said.
Whether the governor’s threat will have any effect on districts with mask mandates remains unclear.
But at least one district, Scottsdale Unified, approved its own masking requirement Tuesday night, after Ducey’s announcement.
That brings to two dozen the number of school districts that, for the moment, are openly defying the governor.
It isn’t just that Ducey wants to use the grant funds only for schools that don’t have mask mandates. He also wants to provide vouchers of these federal dollars to provide $7,000 to parents.
The governor, for his part, remains convinced he’s doing nothing wrong.
“We are confident the program used to distribute these funds aligns with federal guidance,” said press aide C.J. Karamargin.
An aide to Sen. Mark Kelly said his office was studying the legal issues of both the distribution of the aid and the vouchers.
There was no immediate response from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema on the legal question. But Sinema made it clear what she thinks of the governor’s action.
“This is the most absurdly dangerous and anti-science step Doug Ducey has taken (and that’s saying a lot, 2020),” she said in a Twitter post.
“Unless kids under 12 have access to the vaccine, what are parents supposed to do?” she asked. “Just hope their kids don’t get sick and end up in the ICU?”
Ducey has emphasized that nothing in state law or any of his directives prevents parents from putting masks on their children. But that still leaves them at least partially exposed to unmaked students and adults who may be contagious.