UW System president, former Gov. Thompson, says the proposal is “the biggest threat to in-person classes.”
The UW System would be all but powerless to implement COVID-19 safety measures such as masking, vaccination, and testing requirements under a proposal from a Republican state senator who co-chairs the Legislature’s powerful rules committee, but the plan has already drawn rebuke from current UW System President and former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) has introduced a proposal to the Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules (JCRAR) that would require UW schools to submit any COVID-related restrictions 30 days before implementation for approval by the Republican-dominated committee. JCRAR would have the authority to suspend any restrictions, and the suspensions would be immune from a veto by Gov. Tony Evers.
Safety measures would almost certainly be voted down by JCRAR Republicans, who have in the past used the rules process to block enforcement of a host of laws ranging from clean-water regulations to a ban on LGBTQ conversion therapy. Republican lawmakers also refused to enact statewide COVID restrictions last year, instead telling Evers to submit proposed restrictions to the rules committee, where they almost certainly would have promptly been voted down.
“Unfortunately, some chancellors in the UW System consider themselves mini-Andrea Palms not beholden to following state law and moving quickly to take advantage of the Delta-variant hysteria to enact excessive COVID-19 mandates,” Nass said in a press release, referencing the former head of the Department of Health Services who is now the Biden administration’s No. 2 health secretary. “The Legislature should not drag its feet in utilizing the powers we have to prevent state agencies from abusing the statutory and constitutional rights of citizens as was done in 2020.”
Nass’ plan comes as the coronavirus’ exponentially more contagious Delta variant spreads rapidly throughout the state and country. Vaccines are not as effective against Delta infections, though they still largely prevent severe infections, hospitalizations, and death.
RELATED: The Delta Variant is Spreading Rapidly. Wisconsin Health Officials Are Recommending Masks Again.
Delta’s rapid rise is made more concerning by the imminent return of students to classrooms. While epidemiologists generally agreed last year that COVID-19 spreads very little in schools that enact proper safeguards, it remains to be seen how the Delta variant could change that guidance. Further, mask mandates have by and large been dropped, and many school districts are foregoing such requirements as well.
Thompson in no uncertain terms made clear his opposition to Nass’ proposal.
“From day one when I started as president of the UW System, the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff during a global pandemic has been our top priority and responsibility,” Thompson said Thursday in a statement. “Given my experience as a former United States Health and Human Services Secretary, I know the biggest threat to in-person classes this fall would be actions that strip the UW System of the tools it has so successfully used to date to address outbreaks and reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison), a member of JCRAR, said Nass’ “wrongheaded” proposal would “micromanage” schools and that it “endangers public health.”
The Department of Health Services did not respond to UpNorthNews’ request for comment, but Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk told WKOW-TV “university leaders need every tool in their toolbox to be able to respond as the disease evolves.”
JCRAR is scheduled vote on Nass’ measure Tuesday.