weather icon Mostly Clear

Unvaccinated college students cleared to register for spring classes

Nevada’s public colleges and universities are allowing students who aren’t fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to register for spring classes after a state legislative board refused to make permanent an emergency mandate.

The state Legislative Commission deadlocked in a 6-6 vote Tuesday on a permanent regulation that would have replaced an expired emergency vaccination mandate for Nevada System of Higher Education students.

The higher education system, which has eight schools and more than 100,000 students, had been requiring proof of completed COVID-19 vaccinations for students to register for spring semester classes, which start next month.

Some faculty members say the lapsed student vaccination mandate could lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases on campus and potentially force universities and colleges to shift more classes to a remote format — something administrators and most teachers and students would like to avoid.

Kent Ervin, president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said Wednesday the alliance is “very disappointed” with the Legislative Commission’s failure to follow the State Board of Health’s medical expertise.

The State Board of Health voted unanimously in August to approve a 120-day emergency regulation that required college and university students taking spring semester in-person classes to show proof of vaccination by Nov. 1, though students had until registration ended in January to comply.

‘Uncertainty and distress’

“We had all been planning for the spring semester with the expectation that we would be fully vaccinated” and full in-person instruction would be underway, Ervin said.

Instead, “There’s a lot of uncertainty and distress,” he said, noting he has already heard from some faculty members who want to return to online classes.

It’s unknown how many students statewide have been vaccinated against COVID-19. NSHE’s website includes vaccination rates for employees, but not students.

In a Tuesday memo to college and university presidents, NSHE Chancellor Melody Rose said the Legislative Commission’s decision is “effectively eliminating the legal basis for student vaccines to be a requirement for registration for classes at NSHE’s institutions.”

Any student registration hold based on not having proof of COVID-19 vaccinations “must be immediately lifted,” she said.

NSHE still strongly encourages those who aren’t vaccinated to “seek medical advice and make plans to get vaccinated,” Rose said.

A vaccination mandate for NSHE employees, approved by the system’s Board of Regents, remains in effect, she said.

UNLV President Keith Whitfield and Provost Chris Heavey said in an email to the campus community on Wednesday that proof of COVID-19 vaccination is no longer required to enroll in spring classes.

“The UNLV registrar’s office is working to remove registration holds specific to the COVID-19 vaccine,” they said. “We anticipate this to be completed as early as the end of the day today. As a result, all students will have the ability to register for in-person and online courses.”

UNLV responds to decision

Whitfield and Heavey said they recognize the news about the lapsing student vaccination requirements “may be disappointing to some,” but they expect UNLV’s vaccination rates will continue to far exceed those of Southern Nevada as a whole.

More than 94 percent of the university’s employees are fully vaccinated, according to NSHE’s website. In total, 275 have an approved medical or religious exemption, and 236 are unvaccinated.

The campus was also able to operate during fall semester with “very few COVID-19 cases” among employees and students, Whitfield and Heavey said.

Since classes began in late August, the university — which has more than 31,000 students and 8,909 employees — has reported 129 COVID-19 cases, according to NSHE.

Brian Labus, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at UNLV’s School of Public Health, said Wednesday via email: “I am obviously disappointed with the decision, as it makes it harder to protect campus from COVID.”

“However, a student vaccination mandate is not the only tool in the toolbox, and we will continue to follow the best scientific guidance available to protect our students, faculty and staff,” he said. “I will still push to get every member of our campus community vaccinated, as it remains the best way to provide a safe campus environment.”

It’s possible a COVID-19 student vaccination mandate could resurface. In a Tuesday statement, Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office said the state’s Division of Public and Behavioral Health plans to present the regulations again to the Legislative Commission if they’re approved by the State Board of Health. It was not clear Wednesday when the health board would next consider the issue.

Although students are no longer under a COVID-19 vaccination mandate, the requirement for NSHE employees still remains in effect.

In late September, NSHE’s Board of Regents voted 10-3 to approve the employee mandate under a 120-day emergency code revision. And earlier this month, the board voted 9-4 to approve a permanent code revision.

During deliberations, some regents said it would only be fair to require employees to get vaccinated since students must get the shots.

But with the student requirement no longer in effect, it’s unclear whether there will be any movement among regents to try to repeal the permanent employee regulation.

As of Wednesday, 94.3 percent of NSHE’s 22,413 employees are fully vaccinated. In total, 655 employees have an approved medical or religious exemption. That left 616 employees who weren’t vaccinated and don’t have an exemption.

Employees — with the exception of those who work fully remotely — faced a Dec. 1 deadline to comply and those who didn’t were slated to receive a termination notice that becomes effective Dec. 31.

There’s a grace period in January where those who are fired can seek reinstatement if they show proof of vaccination.

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

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.