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360: The state legislature now has control over the UW-system's COVID rules, but should they?

Posted at 6:02 AM, Aug 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-09 10:09:53-04

MILWAUKEE — A Republican-controlled legislative committee voted this week to block the University of Wisconsin System from taking several steps to fight coronavirus without approval from lawmakers.

Some say the new oversight protects students. Others argue the extra steps now in place can put students at risk.

To fully understand each side of this debate, we're going 360. We hear from a doctor who stresses the importance of working together to beat this pandemic as the Delta variant causes a surge in cases statewide, and from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who were part of that controversial vote earlier this week. We also hear from a Master's student at UW-Whitewater who serves as the president of the college republicans. He supports the new government oversight.

But first, we start with a UW-Milwaukee student who says the university should be able to implement COVID-19 safety measures without the state's approval.

The state legislature now has control over the UW-system's COVID rules, but should they?

"I think it's up to the schools to decide what to do. It depends on the university. If you want the students to be safe and if you want to go back to school, I think that’s what should be done," said Areille Stewart, a student at UW-Milwaukee. She believes schools should have the right to request proof of vaccine or to require masking and COVID-19 testing.

"I feel like they want to move forward and move fast and go back to normal but we can’t do that if we’re not taking the proper steps to get to the end of it," said Stewart.

However, the state's Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules is adding an addtional step. Any mandate set by the UW-system must go through the committee first.

John Beauchamp, the chair of the College Republicans at UW-Whitewater supports the move.

"People should be able to make their own decisions on their health. That shouldn’t be up to an unelected bureaucrat like we’re seeing with the UW system," said Beauchamp.

He believes government oversight, when it comes to COVID-19, is a good thing and that it could even help prevent additional learning loss after a challenging year for students and faculty.

"I think that the fatality rate for our students, for the age of a student that would be in the UW-system is very low. As far as I am aware no students has died due to COVID, to my knowledge - So I believe that we’re able to get back to learning in person and were able to get back to a sense of normal as we can anymore," he said.

According to state data, 29 people under the age of 29 have died from COVID in Wisconsin. That's out of the nearly 7,500 who died since the pandemic began.

State Representative Lisa Subeck (D-Madison) sits on the committee that voted to require a review of mandates but voted against the measure. She believes a lack of mandates could impact more than just students.

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"I really worry not only about the spread of COVID then on campus but also about students and faculty and staff bringing that back into our community as well," said Subeck.

She also has serious concerns about the way the changes came about. No public comment, no committee discussion, just a paper ballot vote behind closed doors.

"I think it's pretty clear that Republicans are moving in a direction that is dangerous to the public and to members of the public and they don’t want that seen," she said.

But, State Representative Adam Neylon (R-Pewaukee) calls that concern pre-mature.

"The step that happened today was simply asking them to draft these rules. The next step of the process, when the rules are proposed, is the step where the public hearing would take place," said Neylon.

He says this change is to ensure things like vaccine mandates are not enacted without proper steps.

"If you want to promulgate rules to keep students there safely, I think you should go through the proper channels to do so," he said.

Still, some in the UW-system are moving forward with COVID-19 related mandates without submitting rules for review. UW-Madison is requiring masks on campus starting August 5.

Vaccines are being strongly encouraged across the UW System.

The top infectious disease expert at UW-Health, Dr. Nasia Safdar, says vaccine mandates are a move that "appear to be in everyone's interest."

UW-System President Tommy Thompson has been strongly encouraging vaccines for students and employees for months, and has made it clear he believes this is a better approach than mandates.

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