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More than 1.2K NSHE employees face firing over vaccine mandate

More than 92 percent of Nevada’s nearly 23,000 higher education employees are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, leaving 1,258 employees facing possible termination for failing to comply with the state vaccine mandate, the Board of Regents was told Friday.

Wednesday was the deadline for Nevada System of Higher Education employees — except those who work only remotely — to provide proof of vaccination unless they have an approved medical or religious exemption. As of Friday, 503 workers have had those requests approved, according to the system’s website.

“Receiving the COVID-19 vaccination is the scientifically proven most effective way to protect the health and safety of the NSHE community and end the pandemic,” NSHE Chancellor Melody Rose said in a statement this week.

Most employees who didn’t comply with the mandate, which the regents approved in late September, already have received termination notices, effective Dec. 31.

An exception will be made for employees who begin a vaccination series or get an exemption approved in December. And a 30-day grace period will extend through January to allow fired employees to request reinstatement if they show proof of vaccination.

Compliance at Southern Nevada colleges ranged from an 86.7 percent vaccination rate among staff at the College of Southern Nevada to 91.6 percent at Nevada State College in Henderson.

UNLV was close to the high mark with a 91.3 percent rate. The university said in a statement that figure included “nearly all of our full-time faculty and staff.”

Mandate made permanent

After about an hour of discussion of the mandate on Friday, regents voted 9-4 to approve a permanent code revision for the employee COVID-19 vaccination policy.

Regents Laura Perkins, Patrick Boylan, Byron Brooks and Lois Tarkanian opposed the motion.

NSHE Chief General Counsel Joe Reynolds said the purpose of bringing back the policy is so it doesn’t expire when the 120-day emergency period ends.

The policy mirrors the mandate the board previously approved in September, he said.

Reynolds said there have been questions from faculty and members of the public about what a “permanent” enactment means.

He said it’s still intended to be a temporary code amendment and as soon as it’s no longer necessary, it could be entirely repealed.

There’s also a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for NSHE students.

In August, the Nevada Board of Health voted to require all students registering for in-person spring classes to be fully vaccinated. Medical and religious exemptions are allowed.

There was an initial Nov. 1 deadline, but students can still present proof of vaccination until the spring semester registration ends in January.

Board of Regents Chair Carol Del Carlo said Friday she doesn’t want to see chaos within the higher education system or to send any mixed signals regarding the employee COVID-19 vaccination policy.

“I think it’s really important that we pass this today,” she said.

Regent Jason Geddes called the matter “procedural” and encouraged full support from the board.

Concerns over permanent measure

Some regents, though, expressed concerns.

Brooks, whose district extends through the south-central Las Vegas Valley, noted the disparity between the state’s higher education and K-12 education systems, noting K-12 systems haven’t widely implemented employee COVID-19 vaccination mandates.

He also said the Nevada Board of Health would have to consider a permanent adoption of the student mandate.

“I’m wondering if there’s a way to readdress this or put this on pause until we have better clarification with what’s going on (with) the student mandate,” Brooks said.

Reynolds said he expects the Board of Health will approve a permanent revision, noting that the board made a unanimous decision in August about the emergency mandate within 15 minutes after hearing more than four hours of public comments.

Regent Cathy McAdoo — who recently stepped down temporarily as board chair while an investigation into Rose’s hostile work environment complaint is underway — asked if it was possible to table a decision until late January just before the 120-day emergency code revision is slated to expire, noting the ever-changing dynamic of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Reynolds also said he has concerns with pushing back a decision, noting he believes it would “send a signal of chaos and confusion” to employees.

Perkins, though, said a knee-jerk response to approve a permanent code revision is a “bit much” and noted that the board has until late January to act.

“I have real reservations about making a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” said Perkins, whose district includes North Las Vegas and part of downtown Las Vegas.

Boylan said he opposed making the code revision permanent and wanted to table the agenda item.

Kent Ervin, president of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said the alliance is on record in support of mandatory vaccinations for both students and employees.

A couple of written public commenters alleged NSHE’s vaccination mandate has led to fear and discrimination against a group of people deemed “unvaccinated” at the University of Nevada, Reno, and had undermined the university’s mission of inclusion.

Also on Friday, NSHE regents heard an update from Laura Rich, executive officer of the state’s Public Employees’ Benefits Program regarding a decision by the board voted Thursday to impose a COVID-19 surcharge of up to $55 per month for unvaccinated employees (including NSHE workers) and adult dependents. The charge, which will begin in July 2022, is intended to offset the cost to the state of coronavirus testing.

Nevada is the first state in the nation to take that step for employees under public health insurance plans. State employees are required to be fully vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.

UNLV, CSN and NSC rates

The College of Southern Nevada — a community college with three Las Vegas Valley campuses — has reported 276 unvaccinated workers and 76 with an approved exemption, according to an NSHE online dashboard.

The college didn’t respond to a Review-Journal request for information. It’s unknown what percentage of CSN students is vaccinated.

UNLV reported 611 unvaccinated employees and 202 with approved exemptions, according to NSHE.

Numbers as of Nov. 26 provided to the Review-Journal by UNLV were slightly different. At the time, the university had approved 174 employee exemptions — 165 for religious reasons and nine for medical reasons, and 77 additional requests were pending.

UNLV said in a statement to the Review-Journal that the vast majority of its employees submitted vaccination records or received an exemption as of the Wednesday deadline.

“We hope to see that number increase as we continue to communicate with those who haven’t yet submitted records or waiver requests,” the university said.

Among UNLV students enrolling for spring semester, the university has approved 770 exemptions for religious reasons and 28 for medical reasons, according to data provided by the university.

There are 198 exemption requests pending, but those could be for any of the required student vaccinations — not necessarily specific to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Nevada State College in Henderson reported 36 unvaccinated employees and 30 with an approved exemption.

The college said in a Tuesday statement to the Review-Journal that “robust outreach” to students and employees with information about the immunization process continues.

At the college, 3,035 students have met the COVID-19 vaccination requirement, either by submitting evidence of a completed vaccination series or getting an approved exemption. And 1,030 students haven’t submitted records.

The college didn’t provide further data about how many exemptions for students have been approved.

Candidate search to restart

During Friday’s meeting, NSHE regents also decided unanimously to fail the search and restart the process for a chief of staff/special counsel job.

Regent Patrick Carter, who previously led the search committee, stepped down last month from the role and called for halting the search process. He also stepped down as vice chair of the full board after being named in Chancellor Rose’s hostile workplace complaint.

The failed search comes after Las Vegas attorney James Dean Leavitt — who served as a regent for 12 years, including a stint as board chairman — alleged his application wasn’t lawfully reviewed.

The person who is hired for the position will replace Dean Gould, who retired in December after facing criticism for telling a female regent last year to stop with her “child speak.”

Keri Nikolajewski has been filling the chief of staff job on an interim basis.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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