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COVID vaccine mandate for higher education employees to remain in place

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
CoronavirusHigher Education
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Even as the Board of Regents for the Nevada System of Higher Education deadlocked — 6-6 with one absent — on a vote to keep in place the COVID vaccine mandate for employees, it also failed to approve a motion that would have delayed firings related to the mandate. The two votes effectively left the policy as-is just hours before terminations for noncompliance became effective.

Thursday’s meeting was the latest turn in the months-long effort by policy makers to establish vaccine requirements for more than 22,000 employees and more than 100,000 students ahead of the start of the spring semester next year. 

The inaction came amid mounting concerns that the delay or revocation of terminations the day before they were planned would create “operational chaos” across all eight NSHE institutions. 

“Operationally, for us to go back and to revisit this on Jan. 15, that change becomes highly problematic,” Nevada State College President DeRionne Pollard told regents. “And I think it sends a mixed message about the intent of both this policy and also our commitments around public health.”

Still, an expanding core of regents opposed the employee mandate on varying grounds from individual freedom to concerns over the lack of a student equivalent. On Thursday, that included Regents Byron Brooks, Patrick Boylan, Laura Perkins, Patrick Carter and Cathy McAdoo. 

“I take issue with even one faculty member or one classified worker being terminated for not having the vaccine when clearly the student vaccine mandate has been dropped,” Brooks said. “So it really becomes about equitable policy for all, rather than for some.” 

However, it was the absence of one Regent Lois Tarkanian — an opponent of the mandate in the last two votes on the issue — that likely doomed any delay or repeal of the vaccine requirement as the board was left at an even twelve members. 

That absence briefly became a sticking point as some anti-mandate regents, including Brooks, postulated on the possibility of Tarkanian tipping the vote — though the possibility of her favorable vote did little to tip the balance in favor of the motion that would have delayed firings from the vaccine mandate to mid-January. 

Regents initially voted to create the mandate in late September, following the creation of a student mandate by the Board of Health one month earlier. Nearly 1,700 employees not in compliance were sent termination letters on Dec. 1, but all were allowed stays if they received the vaccine before the end of the month. 

In the final days before the firings became permanent, only a small fraction of NSHE employees — 2.3 percent — remained unvaccinated, or just over 500 employees, according to data shared with regents by institutions on Wednesday. 

The board also voted 10-2 to direct the chancellor to draft a letter in support of a student vaccine requirement to be sent to the governor, Board of Health and Legislature. That letter will be reviewed by regents at an open meeting next month. 

The vote marked the first time since the pandemic began that regents held a formal vote on the increasingly politically charged issue of student vaccine requirements, as regents have clashed over the specifics of mandates and mitigation policies just as major student and faculty groups — who have long supported such mandates — have simmered at the inaction. 

“I’m kind of floored that we're arguing over whether or not to send a letter, when us, as students and instructors, have to be in the classroom in two weeks,” Nicole Thomas, president of the UNLV Graduate and Professional Student Association, said during the meeting. “We have to deal with the fallout.” 

Though students enrolling in in-person classes next spring were initially required to prove COVID vaccination status or receive a valid exemption under an emergency regulation created by the state Board of Health, a partisan deadlock on a procedural vote in the Legislative Commission last week effectively ended that mandate. 

Gov. Steve Sisolak has indicated his office will continue to pursue a student mandate through normal regulatory channels, though that process is not likely to be completed ahead of the start of the spring semester in January. 

Ahead of Thursday’s meeting, Sisolak and all eight presidents or acting heads of the state’s colleges and universities voiced their support for the continuation of the employee mandate.

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