THE achievement gap between 'rich and poor' children is at risk of widening during the Covid-19 lockdown, experts have warned.
A blanket school closure began in March although some vulnerable pupils and children of key workers are attending supervised learning.
There is no date for schools to reopen but calls have already been made to allow disadvantaged pupils to return first.
It has been argued that the lockdown is hitting children in areas of social deprivation much harder than their better-off peers.
Professor Tony Gallagher from Queen's University Belfast said there is a link between disadvantage and educational outcomes.
He said governments all over the world, with varying degrees of success, had tried to find ways to mitigate this relationship.
However, he warned that the lockdown had "exacerbated this relationship and risks doing untold damage into the future".
There was plenty of evidence emerging, he said, on the negative effects on educational opportunities of the most disadvantaged children.
"These children are less likely to live in households where there are the type of computer facilities and access that allows them to engage with online support," Prof Gallagher said.
"The parents of children in disadvantaged circumstances are less likely to see themselves as having the confidence, ability or resources to support their child's learning at home.
"Poorer families are also more likely to suffer uncertainties due to poverty, food insecurity, financial worries and cramped conditions."
UK government surveys on the social impact of the lockdown show that two-thirds of parents are providing home schooling, but only half of them are confident they are able to provide the support their children needs.
A survey of primary school principals by NUI Maynooth highlighted concerns about a significant proportion of children not engaging with school at all.
It also raised issues about the level of support for those with special educational needs or English as an additional language.
The Sutton Trust, which has researched the educational consequences of social disadvantage in Britain for years, has also highlighted the huge disparity in support that can be provided by private schools or state schools in affluent areas, as compared with state schools in disadvantaged areas.
"Education is not just about qualifications, and there are also significant concerns that many children are losing out on the social aspects of education, and that once again it is children from disadvantaged households that are losing out more in this regard," Prof Gallagher said.
"The stresses imposed on some families by this situation could have enduring consequences: we know that adverse childhood experiences can have long-time negative effects on a host of life chances, and the disruption caused by the lockdown will only exacerbate this impact.
"Teachers responded magnificently when schools were closed, and have continued to move mountains in trying to support their pupils as best they can, but it is clear that a system-wide response is needed to address this deepening problem.
"If, as seems likely, that schools will not reopen for a considerable time, then action is required now to prevent achievement gaps getting even wider.
"We need to limit the extent of the damage that is being created now, if only so as to limit the effort that will be required to make up the difference when schooling is eventually restored."
Chris Donnelly, principal of St John the Baptist PS in west Belfast, said the experience of online education to date confirmed the importance to learning of a class teacher working in close proximity with children each day in a shared environment.
"Whilst teachers will continue to invest considerable time and energy into developing work schedules, online tasks and paper packs to advance and guide children's learning from afar, it is no substitute for the quality of effective interactions that take place on a daily basis in a classroom environment," he said.
"Remote learning removes from the learning process the value added dimension provided by the school's cultural environment.
"This should be of great concern to all involved in education, and it threatens to reverse progress made in recent times with regard to closing the attainment gap between children from different socio-economic backgrounds.
"For underachieving children, school makes the critical difference, and the sum of the parts that constitute the living and breathing reality of school life can not be replicated through a remote learning environment that removes the many positive cultural forces - effective remedial teaching and learning, aspiration culture, productive peer and environmental pressures, pastoral strategies etc - which many children from disadvantaged backgrounds rely upon to help them fulfil their potential."