Mayor Garcetti on LAUSD closures and lack of national leadership on coronavirus

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Empty Palms Middle School in Los Angeles. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

LA Unified School District is suspending classes as of Monday, March 16 for at least two weeks. That affects more than half a million children and their families, 80% of whom live in poverty and qualify for free meals at school. There will be 40 centers set up for them to receive services, including meals. Teachers and staff will be fully paid, and they’ll try to conduct online teaching. 

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti talks about these measures and what else the city is doing to fight the spread of coronavirus. 

No student or teacher has tested positive, and yet the district is shutting classes. Do you agree with this move? 

Garcetti: “I agree and I support them. I think it's an abundance of caution, and one that we're seeing play out around not just this country, but around the world. I know that the schools stayed open longer than some wanted. Others would say keep kids there even longer. But I think this is not only prudent, but also something that we should all get behind, and make sure that we take care of our kids. 

These days are the most critical days. And the decisions that we take either flatten this curve and make sure that there are fewer incidences, or we'll look back and say, ‘You didn't see it. You didn't feel it. But we should have done it.’ And so I think this is wise. It mirrors what we're doing at City Hall, mirrors what we're doing with our public gatherings.

It is a critical moment when it's not just government and schools, which can take actions to save lives, but it's now on each one of us. And literally the decisions we make will be life and death results for some of our family members, some of our neighbors, and fellow Angelenos.” 

Superintendent Austin Beutnr had resisted closing schools for a while. He said one of the reasons was because so many of the kids in the district rely on the schools for food. So what is the plan to provide them with meals? 

“The state did get a waiver to allow food to be served to children who qualify when they're not in school. That was a huge win. Other states are still applying for those waivers. California did that early on. So we've had a plan with city rec and park centers, and other things like that.

How do you anticipate online learning to happen when a quarter of the students don't have broadband at home or adequate broadband? And the district doesn't have enough computers for most of its students. 

“There is a historic partnership with PBS on public broadcasting to be able to do learning both through television and also online. Everybody has a phone. And most children are able to use those phones. 

And second, where they're doing meal pickups and dropoffs, that's a place where you can also have remote homework, or folks can get that and print that out. 

This will obviously be a hardship. It's not something that I'll be personally directing, but we will assist in any way that we can, as we did during the teachers’ strike.”

Where should people go if they need more information about getting these meals and places they’re allowed to gather? 

“Through your traditional school websites, through the LAUSD website as well. And there's going to be a series of calls, English and Spanish, that will direct that as the communication has gone from the superintendent and the board in the previous days. 

So it's a good thing this is a weekend coming up. There will be time for that communication to be made. And I know that for days, they've been drawing up plans for two weeks of remote learning that now probably will be extended beyond that.” 

The City Council is working on legislation that would ban evictions for people who can't pay their rent during this crisis. It would prevent power companies from turning off utilities. It might help with sick pay and family leave. Do you support all that? 

“Absolutely. And I'm actually taking direction on my own today to make sure that we don't have utility cut offs from our Department of Water and Power. Water is going to be so critical for fighting the coronavirus, and people's basic washing of hands, and showering, and being clean. Similarly, people who are hit with tough economic impacts on this, the last thing we need to do is be turning off people's water and/or power. And we'll reach out to the Gas Company on the same thing. 

100% support an eviction moratorium. We're looking at who has legal jurisdiction, whether that's at the state level, or whether we can do that locally. 

But I'm looking forward to getting that done, whether it's through City Council action, or from the state. And really calling together with mayors from around the country on Congress and the White House to act immediately, resolve those differences, and help us on sick leave, unemployment benefits, and making sure that folks who are out there who are bearing the biggest economic brunt of this can survive.

And I think that the federal government should be invoking not just emergency powers the president spoke about, but making sure that those dollars flow immediately. 

And we support other things that we can do for small businesses, whether it's our city’s business tax, some of the permitting fees, things like that. We're looking at the full menu. 

And I would encourage people out there to support local business. Maybe you're not going out to as many meals because of what's going on, or you don't want to go out at all. But order some food, and pick it up, and bring it home. Look at ordering online, but at a local business. 

Many other businesses could really suffer -- that a regular person might not be able to help with. Much of Hollywood is shutting down, plus the attendant businesses there. What is the city's plan to try to help those people? 

The scope of this is national. When it comes to individuals -- and we're talking about unemployment insurance, we're talking about paid sick days -- these have to happen at that level, which is why we're tireless. 

Our budget is dwarfed in comparison to what the Congress, and the federal government, and our state can do. We are looking at everything that we can do at the local level. But those will be pennies compared to dollars. … The real help has to come from Sacramento and Washington. … We are feeling this across America. This is a national crisis, and it's time for national leadership.”

Has there been national leadership on this? 

“I think generously it's been uneven. We've had some very good interactions with specific departments who have helped us, places like the airport, the port, the Coast Guard, and others. 

But at the highest level, no. It's been dereliction of duty. You cannot prepare for a crisis when it is already underway. … There is no national planning. So we're putting that together. 

… There were a lot of people at the highest levels who did not take this seriously at the beginning when all of us saw those warning signs, and were screaming for them to. 

Italy has shut down everything except for some pharmacies and stores, and telling people not to move around outside. Could that happen in LA?

“It could happen here and across America. Italy … what you're seeing is the response when in days like the ones we're in today, there wasn't enough done. It's the overreaction necessary when there was an underreaction early. 

… I did pull the trigger yesterday, closing City Hall, canceling meetings, making sure that gatherings of 50 people and over (which was way under the 250 recommended guidance at the state level) were ceased on all city properties, whether they're public or private. 

… It's really important to be calm, but to be resolute, and to take those actions. And for us to do that at the individual level. We all have a friend or a family member who’s like, ‘Oh this isn't going to affect me. I'm healthy. I'm young.’ Remember, you're not just saving your own life potentially. We all have close friends, family members who are immunocompromised or who are being treated for cancer or some other disease, folks who have underlying conditions or are of the age that are vulnerable. 

So your actions aren't just about whether you're going to be okay. It's whether you take action of that social distancing. … Don't have that hug, don't have even that fist bump. Just wave. It's tough for us as Angelenos because we're a friendly bunch. But really, these actions do mean everything. 

And my understanding in Italy is those things weren't done early enough. And so now you see that ghost town in northern Italy. I'm hoping we can take the action to avoid that. But these are the days that we have to act.”

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin