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Regents to reassess employee vaccine mandate on eve of firing deadline

Updated December 29, 2021 - 9:02 pm

The Board of Regents for Nevada’s higher education system could decide Thursday to overturn a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for employees, one day before nearly 550 workers who didn’t comply with the mandate face possible firing.

The Nevada System of Higher Education’s Board of Regents will hold a special meeting at its administrative offices in Las Vegas, 4300 S. Maryland Parkway, starting at 6 p.m. to consider the issue. Some regents will participate remotely from Reno or Elko.

Regents will have three options: maintaining the vaccination mandate as written, pushing the effective termination date from Friday to Jan. 15 or eliminating the mandate and rescinding notices of termination.

If regents push back the termination date, it will allow them to review the topic at a Jan. 14 meeting “with appropriate stakeholder input” before spring semester starts, according to meeting materials.

College and university employees — except those who work remotely — faced a Dec. 1 deadline to provide proof of vaccination or be granted a medical or religious exemption.

Those who didn’t comply received termination notices this month that will become effective Friday unless regents take action. Under the existing regulation, those who are fired can seek reinstatement if they show proof of vaccination in January.

The special meeting comes after a similar vaccination mandate for the public higher education system’s more than 100,000 students was dropped last week. That occurred when the state’s Legislative Commission deadlocked in a 6-6 vote that prevented adoption of a permanent vaccination regulation to replace an emergency measure that had expired.

Because of that development, regents “may wish to consider whether this implicates, if at all, the NSHE employee COVID-19 vaccination mandate,” according to online meeting materials.

“At least five” regents requested the special meeting to reconsider the employee mandate, according to meeting materials.

An NSHE spokesman declined to comment Wednesday or identify the regents who made the request.

But Patrick Boylan and Byron Brooks, both of whom represent parts of Clark County, confirmed they were among those who requested the special meeting.

In an interview Wednesday, Brooks questioned why employees should be forced to be vaccinated when the student mandate has been overturned. And he said it doesn’t make sense when the entire purpose of a vaccination mandate is to reach herd immunity but national figures indicate a 70-90 percent threshold is required to achieve that.

He also said he doesn’t believe in separate policies for employees and students and said there should be a more equitable system.

Brooks said he supports individual rights for faculty and staff to make independent medical decisions and for their right to privacy.

NSHE’s Board of Regents approved the employee COVID-19 vaccination mandate in September by a 10-3 vote under a 120-day emergency code revision. Regents Boylan, Brooks and Lois Tarkanian opposed the motion.

Then early this month the board voted 9-4 to approve a permanent code revision, with Regents Laura Perkins, Boylan, Brooks and Tarkanian opposed.

Gov. Steve Sisolak urged the regents in a statement Wednesday to keep the employee mandate, saying, “We know these measures work in helping to prevent the further spread of the virus.”

“The regents are empowered under Nevada’s Constitution and laws to take such measures and I support their efforts to create safer and healthier communities for all our students, staff and faculty,” he said.

Sisolak said he wanted to thank NSHE employees and students who have “already rolled up their sleeves to give themselves, their communities and our institutions an additional layer of protection from COVID-19.”

Nearly 95 percent of the NSHE’s 22,316 employees are fully vaccinated, according to the system’s online dashboard.

That leaves 547 who aren’t and could face losing their jobs. Another 663 employees have an approved medical or religious exemption.

In a written message response to Sisolak’s statement on Wednesday, Brooks said: “As much as I am pleased to see Governor Sisolak finally formally addressing the Board of Regents and the Nevada’s System of Higher Education almost two years after the pandemic started, I am happy to report to the public that the Board of Regents are doing exactly what we have been entrusted to do.”

“As Governor Sisolak has said on several occasions, what elected officials are entrusted to do is make decisions based off of the current situation on the ground and adjust according to the needs of the moment, just as Governor Sisolak previously stated as the reason for his controversial decisions and months of long lockdowns,” Brooks said.

He said he appreciates Sisolak “finally taking a formal interest and encouraging policy enacted earlier this year, but the situation on the ground has changed and I am confident that the Board of Regents are making the correct choices here, despite the opinions of those who are not in the know.”

The Nevada Faculty Alliance sponsored an online petition that launched Monday in support of vaccination mandates and other COVID-19 mitigation measures. As of Wednesday afternoon, 2,430 NSHE employees, students and their family members had signed it.

The petition is directed to Sisolak, NSHE Chancellor Melody Rose, college and university presidents, the Legislative Commission, NSHE Board of Regents, State Board of Health and NSHE’s COVID-19 task force.

The petition demands the student vaccination mandate be reinstated for spring semester classes.

Petition signers also want NSHE’s Board of Regents to act independently to require vaccinations for all employees and students who are taking in-person classes, while allowing for medical and religious exemptions.

And they want Rose and campus presidents to implement measures such as “free surveillance and diagnostic testing” and allowing for remote or online instruction and work “until the community risk from COVID-19 has been deemed by public health authorities to have subsided.”

In a Wednesday statement to the Review-Journal, Nevada Faculty Alliance President Kent Ervin said the petition has garnered an amazing response and shows the level of concern surrounding eliminating vaccination requirements as spring semester approaches “with the impending omicron surge in cases.”

During their Thursday meeting, regents may also consider directing Rose and Board Chair Carol Del Carlo to write a letter on behalf of the board to Sisolak, the State Board of Health and state Legislature in support of a student COVID-19 vaccination mandate, according to meeting materials.

In August, the State Board of Health voted unanimously to approve a 120-day emergency regulation that required NSHE students taking spring semester in-person classes to show proof of vaccination.

Students were required to comply by Nov. 1, but technically had until January when registration ended. Now, without a permanent regulation on the books, students who aren’t vaccinated are allowed to sign up for spring semester classes.

UNLV Student Body President Caren Yap said in a Tuesday statement to the Review-Journal that repealing the student vaccination mandate and the possible repeal of the employee mandate “has done nothing but hurt and confuse students.”

“The inconsistency of Nevada’s decision making leaves our campuses unsafe, students confused and the entire community at risk,” Yap said. “(California State University) and (University of California) campuses are about to require COVID boosters and Nevada is left behind yet again.”

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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