Teaching unions have lashed out at the DUP's Sammy Wilson after he accused them of being "out of step" with parents by opposing a return to the classroom by August 17.
The East Antrim MP, who is the DUP's Westminster education spokesperson, said pupils here should not continue to be disadvantaged because of the Covid-19 crisis.
Mr Wilson said that teaching unions are out of step with teachers and the parents by opposing an August 17 return for pupils such as those in years 12 and 14.
"Learning must come first. Teaching unions have every right to speak up for teachers, but they must also keep in mind the duty of schools to provide an education for our children and young people," he said.
"That must be the focus. The unions are not only out of step with parents, but out of step with many teachers who want to see their pupils learning and reaching their potential."
The Department of Education has explained that "subject to medical and scientific advice", a phased reopening of schools will take place mid-August for key cohort years, followed by a phased return for all pupils in September.
"For most pupils it will involve a schedule with a mixture of school attendance and remote learning at home," said a spokesperson.
The Ulster Teachers' Union (UTU) branded the remarks "shameful" and Justin McCamphill of the NASUWT told the Belfast Telegraph that Mr Wilson's comments were "totally absurd" as feedback from teachers had indicated the opposite to the case.
"Hundreds of teachers have been in contact with us about this, since it (the return date) was first mooted," he said.
"Teachers do see this as an attack on the terms and conditions, while principals see this news as actually preventing them from having an orderly return to work for September."
Mr McCamphill insisted it was "too simplistic" for anyone to call for schools to restart in around two months' time without any preparation by schools put in place.
Jacquie White, general secretary of the UTU, said: "To suggest that we are not representing the views of our members by voicing concerns over health and safety issues around schools re-opening is quite simply preposterous and a disingenuous attempt it would seem to divide our resolve.
"Yes, education must come first - that underpins our profession - but not at any price. Our members' concerns - and, yes, we have been in daily contact with members across Northern Ireland - are all too real.
"They are desperate to get the children back in class for they too want to remove their job from their living rooms and kitchens which have been taken over for the last 12 weeks, regardless of the needs of their own households."
The row mirrors a spat between teaching unions in England and the government after officials insisted pupils could not return to school unless they could be made "Covid secure".
The government has since abandoned plans to have primary schools reopened by the end of this month.
Mr Wilson stressed, however, that it was time for schools to act, as pressure continues to be felt on parents who are "trying their best" to provide home-schooling, adding some have "limited options for supervising children especially in single parent homes with grandparents shielding".
"For any union to try and exploit legalities to stop teachers and pupils returning to schools in mid-August is reckless and gives little consideration to the pupils' education and particularly pupils in hard to reach communities," he said.
"One of the greatest duties we have to our children is to ensure they get a good education. To do otherwise would be to fail that generation."
The Department said it "fully appreciates the legitimate concerns" expressed by teachers and parents in relation to schools reopening, adding: "The Department has established a Restart Programme... to enable a safe phased reopening of schools."