File - Joe Biden in Arizona

Former Vice President Joe Biden gives a tribute during memorial service at North Phoenix Baptist Church for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

(The Center Square) – Arizona has two months to let schools force mask mandates or risk losing its share of COVID-19 aid from the federal government.

In a letter from the U.S. Treasury Department sent to Gov. Doug Ducey’s office Friday, the Treasury reiterated its position stated in October 2021, warning that the state is using federal COVID-19 relief funds improperly and risks forfeiting part of the $4.2 billion the state received last year. 

At issue is a $163 million Education Plus-Up Grant program Ducey announced on Aug. 17, 2021. These funds would be available to district and charter schools but only if they followed all state laws and remained open for in-person instruction for the remainder of the school year. Schools that return to remote learning would be disqualified.

“The Education Plus-Up Grant Program requires grantees to distribute funds to schools that do not require the use of face coverings. The COVID-19 Educational Recovery Benefit Program is available only to families if the student’s current or prior school requires the use of face coverings during instructional hours and on school property,” the letter said.

Ducey’s office said Friday morning that none of the $163 million had been spent, as it would only be distributed after the school completed the entire year in person. 

The governor, fresh off of announcing his final budget proposal, responded to Friday’s warning from Washington DC.

“This letter is the latest example of a President that is completely out of touch with the American people,” Ducey said. “First, a failed attempt to mandate vaccines. Then, a complete disregard for the public safety and humanitarian crisis at the southern border. Now, attempting to rewrite rules around public dollars that will result in LESS funding to schools and kids – particularly in low-income communities. 

“When it comes to education, President 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. We will respond to this letter, and we will continue to focus on things that matter to Arizonans. President Biden should do the same, and he can start by addressing the crisis at the border.” 

U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Arizona, initially brought the matter to the administration’s attention in August.

“The state should be giving schools every possible resource to get children back in the classroom safely, not punishing them for following the science,” Stanton said in an Oct. 14 statement.

Fellow Rep. Reuben Gallego, a Phoenix Democrat rumored to be considering a challenge to U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema over her refusal to end the filibuster, reacted to the letter Friday afternoon. 

“Throughout this pandemic, [Ducey] has misused COVID-19 relief funds to further his own partisan agenda rather than help AZ families in need,” he tweeted. “I applaud [Treasury] for holding him accountable and urge our governor to finally put AZ families, students, and public health first.”

If Ducey doesn’t change the programs in 60 days, the letter said Treasury officials will begin to recoup funds they deem are being misused. The department said it would also withhold any funds that Arizona has yet to receive until the state is compliant.

According to the New York Times, Arizona has received nearly $1.2 billion of the total $4.2 billion it’s slated to receive in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act.

Regional Editor

Cole Lauterbach is a regional editor for The Center Square covering Arizona, California, and Nevada. For more than a decade, Cole has produced award-winning content on both radio and television.