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Opinion | We Can Live Better Lives While Being Smart About Covid

Masking in schools is uniquely challenging. No one wants to force young children to wear masks for several hours a day indefinitely, but it would also be foolish to abandon the practice completely. A happy medium may be to require masks for students during surges or when new variants of concern are detected and vaccine escape is still being measured. The rest of the time, evidence so far suggests the requirement could be lifted. Nevada has successfully tied its school masking mandates to community transmission rates, and experts say it’s worth trying the same in other states.

Prepare for surges. No scientist or health official has managed to predict, or even explain after the fact, what constellation of forces causes the pandemic to ebb and flow around the globe the way it does. But it’s clear that there will continue to be periods of substantial uptick in coronavirus cases, and there should be sensible, significantly better policies in place for dealing with them.

Country-specific travel bans are futile: By the time a variant like Omicron is detected in one country, it’s already spread halfway around the globe. Penalizing countries that report new variants — as South Africa did, with Omicron — will only discourage them from sharing that kind of information in the future. Blanket policies — like requiring everyone entering the United States to test negative or possibly quarantine — would be tougher and more expensive to carry out.

It would also have a better chance of actually working. If federal officials are serious about using border control to slow the spread of dangerous pathogens, they will need to establish clear, enforceable test and quarantine protocols, not to mention adequate quarantine facilities, at ports of entry.

Do away with Covid theater. The coronavirus is airborne, and any money spent on deep cleaning would be better put toward improved building ventilation. But instead of upgrading their HVAC systems, too many schools and businesses are still relying on things that won’t work nearly as well. The plastic barriers that have become common in restaurants, nail salons and offices, for example, can actually impede air flow and exacerbate viral spread. Lawmakers and local officials should make a concerted effort to change that. Not only would improved ventilation help thwart coronavirus, it would also curb the spread of other airborne pathogens including the flu and those that cause the common cold.

Keep going on vaccines. Public health powers were once a common feature of American life. When cholera and yellow fever routinely stalked the nation’s major cities, citizens accepted and expected their health departments to issue mandates, quarantine orders and travel restrictions. It’s crucial for officials to shore up those powers now, because scientists say that epidemics and pandemics will only become more common in the years ahead. Mr. Biden’s vaccine mandates have been bold and effective — and administration officials should stay the course no matter how many legal battles they encounter.

In the meantime, government officials and private businesses would do well to stand firm on some basics: Covid vaccines should be required for public employees and in large companies, for health care workers, in schools (for staff as well as students for whom the shots are authorized) and for a range of indoor activities including dining in restaurants and attending concerts. Masks should be worn again in indoor public settings anytime transmission rates are high, vaccination rates are low or new variants of concern are circulating.

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