A GROUP of doctor parents has warned the closure of schools until September is having a "huge mental, social, emotional and educational impact on the children of Northern Ireland".
More than 170 medics, including GPs, a cardio-thoracic specialist, respiratory consultants, consultant anaesthetists, surgeons and psychiatrists, have signed a letter to the health and education ministers and the Children's Commisioner, as well as individually contacting their assembly members expressing "concern at the lack of attention being placed on the welfare and education of the children".
They say despite Education Minister, Peter Weir's statements "it is essential that every child should receive the support they need to be able to flourish" and confirming the "essential" need for access to high quality education, "a return to full time education no longer appears to be a priority of the Minister".
"How are we as parents to be anything other than alarmed when we are told by the minister that we `should not underestimate how' our children's `attendance at school can affect their life chances'?"
The letter, seen by The Irish News, warns that "the proposed potential 9-10 month break for many children will result in educational disadvantages that can never be recovered from".
"Our youngest school attenders due to start P1 in September 2020 will miss out on a key time for language and literacy development which is so disappointing.
"We all have adult patients who cannot read, and the thought that some children will never recover from the impact of this educational `plan' is unimaginable."
The doctors also highlight the dangers posed to "our most vulnerable" children during the break in schooling, outlining how the GPs and mental health professionals among them are already seeing more "increased contacts" with pupils.
"We are increasingly being asked to medicate because a child has lost school and all avenues for respite or social interaction outside of home.
"We as doctors, are seeing and hearing heart-breaking stories of the impact of Covid-19 daily in work, such as children being exposed to alcoholism, domestic abuse, marital breakdowns, complete lack of routine and worse, lack of joy in their young lives.
"We are most concerned about those families from whom we hear deafening silence, when we as healthcare professionals, know they must be struggling.
"We as doctors interact with families from across the full spectrum of society within Northern Ireland. For many children, school is their `safe place' which has been removed, with no hope of return for many months.
"Countless children living in deprivation in Northern Ireland get themselves up and out to school because it is a warm building, with the promise of a warm meal, from someone who might be kind to them and notice them for a while."
The letter says the proposals for September return are "lacking in routine and consistency".
They say the proposals for children attending special schools is a "major area of concern for us as doctors".
"For these children and their families, their school provides not only a safe learning environment but a place to access tailored therapeutic support."
They warn "families of these children, some of whom have behaviours that are very challenging, are very much at breaking point... (with) little or no respite available".
"How can the Department expect their parents, who aren't special needs teachers, to meet these educational needs for the foreseeable future?" the doctors ask.
The letter points out "home-schooling is not equal for all, largely due to parental work commitments and level of parental education" and accuses the department of allowing "the education of our children to take a back seat" over "plans to open up shops".
They say as well as some not having access to computers, "in many homes the IT has had to be prioritised for access by the parent(s) working from home so that they can maintain their employment and income".
"We have no reason to believe that this level of inequality and disparity in home-school support would be rectified under the current proposals."