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Regents vote to end COVID vaccine mandate for higher education employees

Jacob Solis
Jacob Solis
Higher Education

The Board of Regents for the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) voted 8-3 to end a COVID vaccine mandate for higher education employees during a special meeting Thursday, ending the requirement less than seven months after it went into effect. 

The move comes after an internal system task force raised concerns earlier this year that the mandate, as written, did little to account for the need for booster shots meant to combat the Omicron variant. 

The task force also raised concerns over the justifiability of continuing an employee rule in the absence of any student equivalent, after a procedural vote from lawmakers last December functionally ended that student mandate. 

The shift comes as a part of the original language of the policy passed last year, which required regents to reassess the mandate sometime before the start of the 2022-2023 academic year. 

Only three regents — Regents Jason Geddes, Mark Doubrava and Lois Tarkanian — opposed the repeal. Tarkanian did not specify her reasoning, though both Geddes and Doubrava expressed concerns over the mandate being repealed. 

In presenting the proposal to the board, interim system leader Crystal Abba told regents that the repeal was not necessarily a function of opposing the use of vaccines, but rather an end to a mandate that had triggered numerous human resources issues without necessarily meeting the goals laid out by the creation of the mandate.

“We're not asserting that we don't care about vaccines anymore,” Abba said. “What we're saying is this is important, but there are ways that we can protect ourselves without having the COVID vaccine requirements in place, given where we are in the situation with the pandemic.”

The motion to repeal the mandate also included the passage of a resolution encouraging students and employees to get the vaccine, while also affirming that NSHE will continue to abide by any regulatory mandates laid down by the governor or state Board of Health. 

That resolution was also tweaked during deliberations to leave the door open for a wide range of possible mitigation measures after at least one regent, Geddes, said that an initial focus on masks in the resolution “just doesn’t go far enough.” 

The final version of the resolution reaffirmed that — in the absence of specific requirements from the governor’s office — the presidents of individual institutions maintain the authority to create their own COVID mitigation regulations, a range that implicitly includes possible mask mandates.

There are currently no mask mandates on Nevada campuses following the lifting of a statewide mandate by the governor in March. However, in June, following a declaration by Southern Nevada health officials that COVID transmission was high, UNLV made a non-binding recommendation that those on campus begin wearing masks in communal spaces again. 

Higher education vaccine mandates in Nevada began at the student level, after the governor’s COVID task force, alongside the NSHE task force, recommended the implementation of a mandate for students enrolling in person at public colleges and universities for the spring 2021 semester. 

After a furious public debate that opened political fissures behind the scenes at NSHE, that student mandate was eventually approved by the state Board of Health in late August, and took effect in November 2021. 

In the midst of those discussions, regents separately explored the creation of an employee mandate, eventually voting 10-3 to approve the requirement — as well as religious and medical exemptions — in late September 2021. 

However, when state lawmakers deadlocked over a procedural vote that would have ended the “emergency” status of the student mandate and extended it into the new year, anti-mandate regents moved to hold a new vote on the employee requirement before it went into effect at the end of the calendar year. 

However, with one regent absent, the Board of Regents also deadlocked in a 6-6 vote, essentially preserving the employee mandate and terminating 209 unvaccinated employees in the new year. 

After lengthy search, regents tap replacement for special counsel 

In a separate vote Thursday, regents also voted 11-1 to approve Robert Kilroy as the board’s new chief of staff and special counsel, ending a more than year-long search to replace the former special counsel, Dean Gould. 

Under the terms of the offer sheet presented Thursday, Kilroy — currently the senior deputy general counsel for the Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners and a former deputy attorney general under former Attorney General (now-Senator) Catherine Cortez Masto — is set to receive a base salary of just under $209,000 per year beginning on Aug. 8.  

Gould left the system in late 2020, following a workplace dispute between himself and another then-regent, Lisa Levine. During a debate over parliamentary procedure during a heated discussion over Title IX regulations, Gould told Levine: “I don’t want to man-speak but I will have to if you continue to child-speak, so please stop.”

The comment drew widespread condemnation on social media, including from elected Democrats, including Gov. Steve Sisolak and Rep. Dina Titus. 

In a statement released at the time, Gould criticized Levine’s “lack of decorum.” An investigation into the incident by a third-party law firm did not yield any publicly released results. 

After Gould’s departure, regents spent several months without a special counsel before opening a formal search in spring 2021. That search stalled and later failed, amid allegations from a former regent who had applied for the position, James Dean Leavitt, who alleged that he had been unfairly excluded from the semi-finalist pool. 

Following long-running disruptions to board business stemming from the hostile workplace complaint filed by former Chancellor Melody Rose, regents eventually restarted the search that culminated in the appointment of Kilroy on Thursday. 

However, it appears it came again with a complaint from Leavitt, who sent another letter to the board this week alleging that he had again been unfairly excluded from the semi-finalist pool and calling for the continuation of the search. 

To that end, Regent Patrick Boylan requested an investigation of the hiring process for the special counsel during the meeting’s new business section, though it is unclear what form that investigation — if one does occur — will take. 

Correction: 7/1/22 at 12:45 p.m. - An earlier version of this story misstated the final vote tally on Thursday's motion to end the vaccine mandate as 10-3. Two regents were marked absent from the vote, and the final tally was instead 8-3.

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