Community organizations are stepping up to create "learning pods" to support Black students and other students of color during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The North Star Network, an initiative of the north Minneapolis-based African American Community Response Team, is creating the pods to help bridge the digital divide, combat the achievement gap and provide equitable education opportunities. The learning pods will form at churches and community centers, and staff will provide tutoring and enrichment activities to support and supplement distance learning provided by the schools.

Many families are forming small learning groups with friends or neighbors to help their students navigate distance learning, and some are even hiring tutors to offer additional support. But not all students' families have the financial means or ability to create such pods. Those are the children the North Star Network's efforts are focused on.

Three sites, including one at the Harold Mezile North Community YMCA, are up and running with several more set to open soon.

Each site will be able to accommodate about 50 students.

Children will also be provided with free meals and mental health support.

Andersen Corporate Foundation, Securian Financial, U.S. Bank and Xcel Energy provided about $1 million in initial funding for the pods, which are also supported by the YMCA of the North.

The pods provide social support for students and ensure they have access to and assistance with online learning, said Glen Gunderson, president and CEO of the YMCA of the North. Students also have access to free meals and mental health support while at the sites.

"This is addressing a very significant need," Gunderson said.

Over time, Gunderson said, he'd like to see the model expand statewide.

"We don't think these learning challenges are going to go away," he said. "… We think these [pods] could be a part of the new normal to come."

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440