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Wisconsin Senator Aims To Block State Universities From Requiring COVID-19 Testing, Masking

Plan Would Require Approval From State Lawmakers For Pandemic-Related Requirements

A sign hangs on a glass door explaining COVID-19 safety to those who enter
A sign hangs on the door of a building on UW-Madison’s campus advising those who enter to follow safety precautions. Angela Major/WPR

A Republican state senator is moving forward with a plan to block University of Wisconsin System schools from instituting safety measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, like testing and screening, without approval from GOP lawmakers.

Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, who chairs the Legislature’s administrative rulemaking committee, said Wednesday evening that he aims to introduce a plan next week that would require UW System schools to submit any mandatory pandemic regulations to the rulemaking committee for approval. The committee is controlled by Republicans.

In a prepared statement, Nass said his proposal is aimed at preventing state universities across Wisconsin from requiring students to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, inform schools of their vaccination status and or wear masks on campus. He argued some UW System chancellors are “moving quickly to take advantage of the delta-variant hysteria to enact excessive COVID-19 mandates.”

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“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 said.

Current pandemic-related requirements vary at UW System schools across the state.

In February, UW-Madison began restricting access to campus buildings for students and staff unless they could provide proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. Those restrictions were eased May 10. According to the school’s website, access to some spaces and events on campus still requires proof of a negative test. In June, Chancellor Rebecca Blank rescinded previous orders related to masking and social distancing on campus.

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A spokesperson for UW System said Thursday that other system schools “have the ability to enact healthy and safety requirements, such as masking and testing, and can do so in consultation with local health departments.”

UW System interim President Tommy Thompson pushed back on Nass’ comments on Thursday, saying “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.”

“Just as we have this past year, the UW System will continue to use its authority to take nimble and reasonable steps that enable us to keep our campuses open for the education students need, parents expect, and Wisconsin deserves,” Thompson said in a prepared statement.

While some private colleges in Wisconsin have mandated vaccinations for students, Thompson has said for months that vaccinations will not be required for students to attend classes or live in dormitories at UW System schools. Even so, UW-Madison officials said last month they expect at least 80 percent of the campus population will be vaccinated against COVID-19 this fall. Last weekend, Thompson unveiled an incentive program aimed at promoting vaccination.

Thompson has also said that students who can prove vaccination status will not have to complete regular COVID-19 testing requirements.

Republican state lawmakers have also introduced a bill that would ban mandatory COVID-19 testing and vaccination at UW System and Wisconsin Technical College System campuses. If approved, that plan would likely be vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers.

Editor’s note: Wisconsin Public Radio is a service of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Educational Communications Board.