ducey

Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday defends state laws and his policies against mask mandates even as the Biden administration may investigate whether they violate the civil rights of students and staff.

PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey lashed out Thursday at President Biden’s bid to go after governors who ban mask mandates, calling his administration’s message to him “weak and pathetic.’’

Meeting with reporters, the governor said there’s nothing wrong, legally or otherwise, with his decision to provide new education funding only to K-12 schools that don’t require students and staff to wear masks. He said those dollars are reserved for schools interested in teaching which, for him, includes obeying state law.

Ducey also directed his ire at the state’s three universities, which have so far ignored his claim that it is illegal for them to require the use of masks indoors on campus.

“People should follow the law,’’ he said. “And when they don’t follow the law, there’s consequences.’’

What are the consequences?

“I’ll leave that to the courts,’’ Ducey responded.

However, the law appears to not be as the governor believes.

The statute, approved by the Republican controlled legislature and signed by the governor, forbids universities and community colleges from requiring that students be vaccinated against COVID-19 or show proof of such immunization. It also says that the schools cannot place conditions on attendance or participation in classes or academic activities, including the use of masks, if someone chooses not to be vaccinated.

That parallels a nearly identical executive order issued by Ducey earlier this year.

The universities instituted an across-the-board mask requirement, regardless of vaccination status. They’re not backing down.

Pam Scott, spokeswoman for the University of Arizona, said the policy is “in compliance with the governor’s executive order and the law.’’

Jay Thorne, an Arizona State University spokesman, said school officials reviewed the executive order and the law very carefully, “and our actions are based on that evaluation.’’

Ducey isn’t buying it and says he’s prepared to act.

“There are consequences for not following the law,’’ Ducey said. “They are through the courts, they are through civil outcomes, and they are through the budget.’’

That possibility of financially penalizing universities is what the governor already is doing with K-12 schools.

Earlier this week he said only schools that do not require faculty and students to wear masks will get a share of $163 million in federal COVID relief dollars. That is based on legislation, which takes effect Sept. 29, making it illegal for schools to mandate the use of masks.

On Wednesday, however, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona sent a letter to the governor warning against doing anything that could hamper the safe return of students to schools. That was backed up hours later by Biden, who told Cardona to use civil rights laws to take actions against governors who prohibit schools from requiring masks.

“We’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators who protect our children,’’ the president said.

In his letter to Ducey, Cardona said the schools requiring masks are following recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He told the governor that any moves to block districts from following that advice “may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by federal law.’’

Ducey said he wasn’t concerned the state will forfeit its federal COVID relief dollars.

“I’m confident we’re on solid ground,’’ he said.

He used the opportunity to take a swat at the president.

“The letter was weak and pathetic, just like the Biden administration is weak on the border, weak and pathetic on the collapse in Afghanistan, weak and pathetic on their COVID response, and weak and pathetic on their attack on the Phoenix police department and Chief Jeri Williams,’’ Ducey said.

The last reference is to an investigation launched earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Justice into the patterns and practices of the agency of using deadly force and whether it retaliates against people for exercising their First Amendment rights.

Ducey said they should butt out of how Arizona regulates its schools.

“Why don’t they focus on their day jobs, take care of the nation’s borders and help Americans leave Afghanistan and leave schools to the states,’’ he said. “That’s how the Constitution reads.’’

Ducey said he’s sees nothing wrong with giving extra money only to those schools that agree not to impose mask mandates. He said it’s part of his plan to provide academic help to students, many of whom have not been in regular classes for more than a year.

“We are going to spend the money in schools that are serious about education and getting kids caught up,’’ he said.

Ducey sidestepped a question of whether he believes schools that require masks are not “serious about education.’’

“I’m saying that a parent can make that choice,’’ Ducey said. “And I think we ought to trust parents.’’

Ducey also said he is not alarmed at the increasing number of Arizonans contracting COVID-19.

On Thursday the Department of Health Services reported another 3,546 cases, the highest daily figure since early February, before the vaccine was generally available. Fully a quarter of beds in intensive care units are occupied by COVID patients, something that last happened on Feb. 23.

“The virus moves in waves,’’ Ducey said. “We see it happen in certain parts of the country. It’s coming to this part of the country as well.’’

The governor said people should “use common sense and be responsible,’’ adding that the vaccine is available to many — though not yet to anyone younger than 12.