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Higher ed regents repeal COVID-19 vax mandate

Updated July 1, 2022 - 5:22 pm

Nevada’s higher education regents decided in a 8-3 vote Thursday to repeal an employee COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

Dr. Mark Doubrava, Jason Geddes and Lois Tarkanian voted no.

The action comes less than a year after the requirement for more than 20,000 Nevada System of Higher Education employees went into effect. Regents approved an emergency code revision in September 2021 and a permanent one in December 2021.

Higher education employees had a December deadline to provide proof of vaccination or receive a medical or religious exemption. Those who didn’t comply were fired.

In total, 209 employees were fired, Officer in Charge Crystal Abba told the board Thursday.

There wasn’t discussion at the meeting about what repealing the mandate could mean for those who were previously fired.

Nearly 97 percent of the system’s 22,359 employees are vaccinated, according to an online data dashboard. And 711 have an approved exemption.

Regents also voted Thursday to adopt a resolution saying that the higher education system is committed to following state COVID-19 mandates and will encourage its community to stay up-to-date on vaccinations and that each president can decide on health and safety measures for their campuses.

The chancellor’s office supported repealing the vaccination mandate and adopting the resolution, according to online meeting materials.

Reconsidering requirement

The previously adopted code outlining vaccination requirements said regents would reconsider the mandate before the start of fall semester. It also provided the option of looking at it again “as the emergency conditions underlying the COVID-19 pandemic substantially improve.”

Last month, the Southern Nevada Health District said there was a high level of COVID-19 community spread in Clark County and recommended wearing a mask in public indoor settings.

In December 2021, five regents requested a special meeting to reconsider the requirement after the state Legislative Commission failed to pass a permanent student COVID-19 vaccination measure to replace an expired emergency provision.

But regents deadlocked in a 6-6 vote, which meant the employee vaccination requirement remained in effect.

The system brought regents two options during a late May meeting — keeping a vaccination requirement for new employees and removing the requirement for vendors and contractors, or a full repeal.

During a discussion in May, officials stressed communicating the importance of vaccines to employees and students, Abba said.

System officials also met with human resource directors who were responsible for implementing the original policy and they unanimously supported a full repeal, Abba said, noting it’s no surprise they experienced many implementation challenges.

As for the resolution, it’s important to understand it does not grant additional authority that doesn’t already exist, she said.

Abba said system officials see the items — the repeal of the vaccination mandate and adopting a resolution — as a pair and urged the board to consider them both.

Divided board

Geddes said he thinks the vaccination mandate is necessary for the safety of faculty, staff and students. He also said he doesn’t think the resolution goes far enough.

Doubrava said that as a physician, he believes in the vaccines and will stick with his original position of keeping the mandate.

Regent Byron Brooks said he’s in favor of repealing the vaccination policy, which he described as outdated. With the resolution, he asked, why would a school provide a mandate beyond what the state itself requires?

Interim Chief General Counsel Jimmy Martines said it’s important to acknowledge certain things could happen on a campus that could require a president to use her or his authority to ensure a safe and successful campus operation.

He gave the example of an outbreak in a dorm — a situation the governor’s office wouldn’t issue a directive on because it’s more of a local issue, he said.

Regent Amy Carvalho said she’s in favor of repealing the vaccination mandate. She said she thinks it was the right thing to do at the time, but it’s difficult to continue to enforce it and so much has changed since it was approved.

New chief of staff

Also Thursday, regents hired Robert Kilroy — senior deputy general counsel for the Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners — as the new chief of staff/special counsel. Regent Patrick Boylan voted “no.”

Kilroy was hired under a 12-month contract with a starting annual base salary of $208,942.

Regent John Moran, who led the search committee, said the group interviewed three highly-qualified candidates Wednesday and unanimously recommended Kilroy.

Other finalists were Richard Hinckley, former general counsel at the College of Southern Nevada, and Debra Pieruschka, assistant general counsel at UNLV.

After the vote, Kilroy told the board he’d like to express gratitude. He said he’ll come to work every day looking to build a strong team so the Board of Regents can be the most effective yet.

Kilroy said he wants regents to be empowered to make the higher education system the “jewel of the west” where everyone wants to come to be educated.

Dean Gould retired from the job in December 2020 after facing criticism for telling a female regent earlier that year to stop with her “child speak.” Keri Nikolajewski filled the chief of staff position on an interim basis.

The search process previously failed and was then restarted. It came after Las Vegas attorney James Dean Leavitt — who served as a regent for 12 years, including a stint as board chair — alleged his application wasn’t lawfully reviewed.

Boylan said during the Thursday meeting he agreed with a written public comment, which wasn’t read into the record, that the search was not proper. He said the three finalists, though, were highly qualified.

Boylan referenced a letter Leavitt sent Tuesday to system officials and search committee members, demanding to be included on the list of semifinalists for the job because of his “sterling and overwhelming qualifications.” He also said search committee members should review semifinalists.

“This is the only way we avoid the commencement of immediate litigation,” Leavitt wrote.

Boylan said the search process was “another big black eye to this board” and asked if an investigation could be conducted.

“I’m finding this very difficult to swallow,” he said. “This whole event is beyond flabbergasting to me.”

Boylan said he would abstain from voting and later asked if he could instead make himself absent from the meeting briefly during the vote. But after legal advice, he voted “no” instead.

Chancellor committee

Also Thursday, the board also decided to create a committee to review the roles and responsibilities of the chancellor.

Regents voted 9-4 in April to accept Chancellor Melody Rose’s resignation and award her $610,000 in severance pay. And last month, former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Dale Erquiaga was named acting chancellor.

An earlier version of this story misstated the vote to end the vaccine mandate. It was 8-3 in favor.

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

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