Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Republican-led committee votes to block UW campuses' COVID-19 requirements; UW-Madison immediately issues mask mandate

From JSOnline:
Hope KarnoppDevi Shastri
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MADISON - University of Wisconsin officials who want to ward off a rising COVID-19 caseload now must get permission from the Legislature to implement masking, testing or vaccination requirements, according to a plan Republicans adopted Tuesday.

Within hours, UW-Madison's chancellor tested the issue by imposing a mask requirement without saying whether she would seek the approval of lawmakers.

The Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules voted remotely without holding debate on the motion to require legislative approval for COVID policies on campuses. All six Republicans voted for the proposal and all four Democrats voted against it. 

Republicans say the vote means the UW System must now get approval from lawmakers before putting in place any COVID rules. Democrats dispute that, saying the system still has the power to act on its own.

UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank signaled she believed she could act on her own by issuing a campuswide mask mandate soon after the committee vote.

Her order will require people — whether vaccinated or not — to wear masks when they are in campus buildings, in campus buses or riding with others in university vehicles. There are exceptions for when people are eating and drinking, in their dorm rooms or alone in offices. It takes effect Thursday. 

Teresa Scott, a sophomore from Milwaukee majoring in photography, sits in the student union on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus on Monday. Colleges across the state are working to reevaluate on-campus masking policies in the weeks leading up to the start of the fall semester.

Between the committee's vote and Blank issuing her order, system officials did not respond to questions from the Journal Sentinel about whether they believed campuses could act on their own. 

"Today’s action feels like a political statement; our focus is to ensure we are doing what needs to be done now to safely open for in-person teaching this fall," UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch said of the committee's vote.

Republican Sen. Steve Nass of Whitewater introduced the motion last week, which directs the UW Board of Regents to issue any current or future systemwide or campus-by-campus COVID-19 requirements as emergency rules, which the committee could block in part or whole. 

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