A DUP MLA has been criticised for branding longer school closures advocated by some Stormont ministers as being tantamount to "child abuse".
Paul Givan highlighted the negative impact on young people's educational prospects as he claimed several ministers were using children in the "most appalling way".
Schools in Northern Ireland shut for two weeks on Monday after the Executive imposed new restrictions in a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19.
The move has seen the Halloween mid-term break extended by an extra week.
It is understood Sinn Fein was in favour of closing schools for between four and six weeks, with the two-week closure ultimately agreed by ministers representing a compromise struck with the DUP.
But Mr Givan told the Assembly yesterday that the impact of the extended school closure during the first lockdown had been "devastating" for some children.
"That's why I am so frustrated that some members of the Executive wanted to shut our schools down for six weeks and then four weeks," the Lagan Valley MLA added.
"I'm looking at the impact this is having on children, and it's child abuse what has taken place. They are using children in the most appalling way."
Mr Givan also questioned the rationale for closing schools when Stormont's medical and scientific advisers had flagged concerns not around schools themselves, but with the associated traffic and human interaction outside the gates.
Clarifying his remarks later, Mr Givan told this newspaper: "A fundamental right for every child is their education.
"Any decision to deprive children of classroom time should not be taken lightly.
"It goes without saying that I was not equating children who were sexually and physically abused (with) school closure restrictions.
"Anyone insinuating otherwise should reflect on their warped mindset."
However Alliance councillor Sorcha Eastwood, who also represents Lagan Valley, branded Mr Givan's comments a disgrace.
"At a time when we are facing one of the most serious challenges we ever will, it's disgraceful that Paul Givan makes a crass attempt to not only criticise a plan his party signed off on, but to label it with the term 'child abuse' to attempt to score political points," she said.
"He would be better focusing his efforts on helping unite the community to fight against this deadly virus, so we can work together to support people, workers, businesses and families through this pandemic."
Another Lagan Valley MLA, Ulster Unionist Robbie Butler, said: "I don't believe that any member of the Executive takes lightly the impact of lost classroom learning and socialisation for pupils.
"As an education committee member, I am well aware of the need to support access to safe education.
"However, we are in the mouth of a deadly pandemic and the recent rise in infection rates and Covid-19 deaths - sadly, one known to me this week - highlights the need to listen to the medical and scientific advice.
"Having spent quite some time on multiple forums with principals and teachers across Northern Ireland, I can only come to one conclusion, and it is that they are literally on their knees.
"Some of our principals have told me that they are close to a breakdown. If there is a case of abuse, perhaps it may be found in the lack of real-time information, help and resources to effectively lead and teach.
"Language, as we have learnt this week is important."
The local branch of the NSPCC and the Northern Ireland's Children's Commissioner both declined to pass comment on Mr Givan's remarks when contacted last night.