PHOENIX – Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday upped the pressure on the growing number of public school districts defying a state ban on mask mandates as they try to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The Republican created a $163 million school grant program using federal virus relief funds he controls, but schools that have mask mandates or have to close because of COVID-19 outbreaks won't be eligible for the additional $1,800 per student.
“Safety recommendations are welcomed and encouraged — mandates that place more stress on students and families aren’t,” Ducey said in a statement. “These grants acknowledge efforts by schools and educators that are following state laws and keeping their classroom doors open for Arizona’s students.”
School districts with current mask mandates will have 10 days to rescind them or lose out on the money, Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin said. That's despite the fact that a law banning schools from enacting those rules does not go into effect for more than a month.
Ducey also created a $10 million grant program that largely mirrors the state's private school voucher program by awarding parents $7,000 for each student if their public school required isolating or quarantining due to COVID-19 exposure, or if it mandated masks or gave preferential treatment to vaccinated children.
“Our COVID-19 Educational Recovery Benefit will empower parents to exercise their choice when it comes to their child’s education and COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” he said.
Arizona is one of eight states that have laws or executive orders banning mask requirements in public schools, with some landing in the courts. Education advocates have filed a lawsuit over Arizona's ban and several other state laws that restrict the power of local governments and school districts to impose COVID-19 requirements.
At least one other state, Florida, is giving private school vouchers to parents who say a public school district’s mask-wearing requirements amount to harassment of their children.
Arizona's GOP-led Legislature this year rejected an expansion of the voucher program that now gives about 10,000 students public cash to attend private schools. Students who do not have special needs get 90% of the state funding, about $7,000 each, that would have gone to their local public school to pay for private school tuition or other costs.
The governor's moves come as an increasing number of school districts defy the provision in the newly enacted state budget that bans mask mandates and instead follow recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding face coverings. Ducey and Republicans who control the Legislature crafted the state's restrictions.
Democratic House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding said Ducey was creating his own “Hunger Games" for Arizona schools with his actions.
“It’s a sickening irony that he’s doing this by dangling millions of federally provided funds for COVID-19 relief and forcing school districts to choose between the health and safety of kids and educators, or millions in additional funding that Republicans have withheld for years," Bolding said in a statement. “With the delta variant running rampant and COVID-19 cases among children on the rise, it’s disgusting to put a bounty on spreading this illness to kids and punishing schools that try to operate safely.”
And Democratic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema in a tweet called Ducey's action “the most absurdly dangerous and anti-science step (he) has taken.”
“Until 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?”
Arizona has seen coronavirus cases surge in the last six weeks, and numerous school districts have had large outbreaks. State health officials on Tuesday reported 2,661 cases and three deaths from the virus.
In all, the Arizona Department of Health Services has reported more than 970,523 cases and 18,467 deaths from the virus since the pandemic began. Fifty-four percent of the 7.1 million Arizona people living in the state have been vaccinated.
Five districts, two in metro Tucson and three in the Phoenix area, opted to require students and staff to wear masks after a judge ruled Monday that the budget law does not go into effect until Sept, 29. A teacher who filed a lawsuit challenging a mask mandate at a Phoenix district argued it took effect after lawmakers approved it in late June.
In all, at least 16 districts in Arizona are requiring students and staff to wear masks while indoors amid fears over the delta variant.
The districts collectively account for 198,000 students and nearly 300 schools, most in Tucson and metro Phoenix. Arizona has about 1.1 million public school students.
The school board in Bullhead City in the state's northwest voted unanimously Tuesday night to instruct teachers and other school employees not to discuss their own or the children's COVID-19 vaccine status with students. Board members said such health questions belong exclusively to the students' families.
Ducey's $163 million grant program that uses American Rescue Plan funds excludes any district or charter schools that do not follow all state laws as of Aug. 27 and that don't remain open for in-person instruction for the whole school year.
The Phoenix Union High School District, which has 22 schools and about 28,000 students, was the first to defy the mask mandate ban on July 30 and was the defendant in the lawsuit. Asked for comment, a district spokesman pointed to a tweet from Superintendent Chad Gestson saying many state-level decisions are undermining efforts to safely provide in-person instruction.
“Today, I am worried about our children. All 1.1 million,” Gestson wrote. “But as for those in our care in PXU, we will continue to prioritize their health, safety and wellness.”
Karamargin said the governor's moves were not about penalizing schools that defy his will or their students, who will lose out on funding he is withholding.
"This is about sending a clear message to those schools that are not violating the law about how important it is to follow the law," Karamargin said.
Meanwhile, a western Arizona school district is considering an unorthodox proposal to ban any discussion between staff and students about vaccines and masks. The Colorado River Union High School's governing board was set to meet on the matter Tuesday night in Bullhead City. The measure would allow for disciplinary action to be taken against any district employee who speaks on “anything related to vaccine status or encouraging/discouraging vaccines or mask with students.”
District officials did not immediately return a message from The Associated Press seeking comment. According to the district dashboard, there are 18 active COVID-19 cases across the district.
Associated Press writers Jacques Billeaud, Terry Tang and Anita Snow contributed to this report.