It's almost September. This year there is no Minnesota State Fair, but there is a school year starting soon. And the coronavirus pandemic continues to be a significant threat to our children's future, exacerbating the academic achievement differences that have been a persistent problem in Minnesota for years.

Minnesota's 2016-17 graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students placed our state 50th among the 50 states. Our graduation rates for Native American students ranked 49th out of 50. Minnesota's achievement gap has become the worst in the nation.

Meanwhile, many K-12 students haven't set foot in a classroom in more than five months and won't be headed back anytime soon. We recognize the need to safeguard the health and safety of teachers and students. However, at the same time we must recognize the significant learning loss and long-term impact of what's happening, especially for students who were already behind their peers. These students are at high risk of falling into a sinkhole from which they may never emerge.

Our education system was not designed to deal with extended shutdowns like the one brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teachers, administrators and parents have worked extraordinarily hard to keep students learning, but these efforts fall short compared to the quality of education found in a classroom.

For starters, too many students lack connectivity — according to Pew Research Center analysis, 35% of low-income families with school-aged children don't have internet access. When measured by race and ethnicity, the gap is greater for African American and Hispanic families.

The long-term effects on these students' academic success, economic well-being and the country's economy will be dramatic. We can't afford to sit on the sidelines and just hope for the best.

An idea that has received considerable interest lately is "pods" or "microschools" where families pool resources to hire a teacher or tutor, bringing kids together in small groups for some socialization and in-person instruction.

But this raises equity issues. Some families have the means to hire instructors, but many do not. Under normal circumstances every child has an opportunity to go to school. Not every child has an opportunity to be in a pod.

We cannot allow our worst-in-the-nation achievement gap to skyrocket due to this crisis. Fortunately, a group of African American leaders in Minneapolis have been working to battle the negative impacts of the pandemic since it reached our state. The African American Community Response Team (AACRT), along with the Minnesota Social Compact, brought together more than 40 faith-based institutions, education and training institutions, businesses and civic leaders to take advantage of the community's leadership, infrastructure and expertise.

Now AACRT is expanding their efforts to create the North Star Network — a new initiative to create "pods" for students who need our help.

These community-based Zoom learning labs will build on the successful Get On The Bus program AACRT deployed in north Minneapolis this summer. Over the past three months, mobile learning lab buses were outfitted with Wi-Fi access, Chromebooks, air conditioning and staff support. Students participated in socially distanced sessions on the mobile learning labs. AACRT mobilized 10 buses, with three cohorts per day, serving 300 students each day. There were no COVID-19 related incidents during the summer session.

That pilot set the stage for North Star Network learning pods this fall. These pods don't take the place of a student's regular distance learning through their school — they supplement that learning by providing tutors, a quiet learning space and connected technology.

AACRT is both tapping into the local assets of our community and using technology to connect Minnesota students with African American teachers and tutors from across the nation to deliver instruction online.

COVID-19 and the coming school year present challenges that will impact the next generation for their entire lives. The prior way of doing things has been disrupted — we can't allow status quo thinking to constrain our response. AACRT's innovative plan to reach students who are most at risk is the type of community-based, technology-enabled response that might not have presented itself under normal circumstances.

We encourage elected officials and businesses to partner with AACRT to build these learning pods — while they will be offered free to families and students, there is a cost for the technology and space needed to make them happen.

Minnesotans are known for their innovation. Let's make learning pods for students who need them our next, and potentially most impactful, creation.

Louis J. King II is the president and CEO of Summit Academy OIC and co-founder of the African American Community Response Team. Archie Black is president and CEO of SPS Commerce and chair of the Minnesota Business Partnership Education Committee. Charlie Weaver is executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership.