University of Wisconsin in standoff with legislature over mask mandate

University of Wisconsin in standoff with legislature over mask mandate

A top university official in Wisconsin is butting heads with state Republican legislators over who has the authority to impose COVID-19 restrictions on campus.

Just hours after a Wisconsin state legislature committee on Tuesday required all University of Wisconsin schools to receive permission before issuing new coronavirus guidance, University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank reinstated her campus’s indoor mask mandate.

The move came after a 6-4 party-line vote in the Republican-led Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, which approved the measure without debate.

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Democrats argue that the campuses have a right to make their own decisions on COVID-19, while Republicans say their new requirement will prevent unnecessary and invasive action by schools.

"The path forward in addressing Covid-19 is not through excessive government mandates, but in the restoration of Americans being able to make voluntary informed decisions based on their individual health circumstances," state Sen. Steve Nass (R) said in a statement Tuesday.

Blank’s order, which reinstates a prior indoor mask mandate, will require all individuals to wear masks in campus buildings, regardless of vaccination status. The school said in a statement that the measure is designed to combat breakthrough infections of COVID-19, in which a fully vaccinated person can still contract the virus.

“We are particularly concerned about the next two months, when many of our students will arrive on campus from across the U.S. and around the world. We want to continue to keep infection rates as low as possible in our community,” the statement reads.

Wisconsin has seen breakthrough infections in less than 2 percent of all reported cases of the virus between January and July, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health. Campus administrators estimate at least 80 percent of employees and the same proportion of students have received the vaccine as of August.

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In response to the move from Blank, rules committee co-chairs Nass and Rep. Adam Neylon (R) told UW System interim President Tommy Thompson in a letter that the system had 30 days to adhere to the panel’s order or "cease implementation and enforcement of these policies, whether current or future."

Thompson has repeatedly told lawmakers not to constrain the system’s COVID-19 response, citing its ability to react to developments in infections as one of its greatest tools in the fight against the pandemic.

"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," Thompson said last week.

Other state universities, including those in Indiana and Minnesota, have issued mask mandates for their campuses. A federal appeals court this week sided with Indiana University in a lawsuit brought by a group of students challenging the school's COVID-19 requirements.