As Minnesota families have struggled with COVID-caused distance learning for their kids, they've learned that often online schooling isn't as effective as being in the classroom.

And like other health, housing and income "gaps," the detrimental education effects have been even worse for poor, brown and Black kids.

That's because to mitigate those effects, some more affluent families can rely on quality technology, form small learning pods or even hire tutors to help kids get the most out of distance learning.

To address the inequities, local businesses have stepped up in a big way to help. Most recently, this week Minneapolis-based SPS Commerce announced that the company and its leadership are providing $300,000 to fund a learning lab for lower-income Minneapolis and St. Paul distance learners.

In the firm's latest initiative to address systemic racism and inequity in Minnesota, the contribution will fully fund an additional learning pod for primarily low-income students of color in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

SPS Commerce joins other local businesses and the YMCA in supporting the effort. Xcel Energy, U.S. Bank, Andersen Corporate Foundation and Securian Financial provided about $1 million in initial funding for learning pods.

The businesses answered the call from the African American Community Response Team (AACRT) and the Minnesota Social Compact to contribute to the worthy cause. Those organizations convened dozens of education, faith-based and business leaders to work on equity issues. Following the success of the "Get On The Bus," mobile lab program in north Minneapolis this summer, AACRT developed the North Star Network to create more education pods for needy distance learners.

The community-based Zoom learning pods don't replace a student's distance learning; rather the program is designed to supplement that learning with well-connected technology, tutors, and a space that's conducive to learning.

The program is intended to help combat the achievement gap, narrow the digital divide and improve equal access to effective education. In addition, kids can (in a small-group, socially distanced setting) interact with other students in activities that are important to their social and emotional health.

As of the beginning of the school year, three sites were operational and more are expected to start up. Each will be able to accommodate about 50 students. Children also will be provided with free meals and mental health support.

"Minnesota has the largest achievement gap by race in the nation. This is unacceptable and SPS is stepping up to address it," said Archie Black, president and CEO of SPS Commerce.

In this challenging time, it's encouraging that community organizations, local businesses and nonprofits are rallying to help provide equitable access to K-12 learning. Kudos to the AACRT and funders for filling this important need.