Nurseries and childcare providers are facing “catastrophic” closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.
More than nine in 10 nurseries and day-care providers in Northern Ireland have had to shut since late March.
MLAs on Stormont’s education committee were told that some may never be able to reopen.
They were hearing evidence from representatives of nurseries, day-care providers and childminders.
Pauline Walmsley of the Early Years organisation said there were 344 day nurseries in Northern Ireland, about 80% of which were private businesses.
They employed 7,000 staff caring for about 28,000 children.
‘May never be in a position to reopen’
Ms Walmsley said that only a small number of providers had been able to remain open for children of key workers.
“86% of school-age childcares are closed and over 90% of day-cares are closed,” she said.
“Those that are open have an average attendance of five per day with the day-care being down to 2.2% of their capacity.”
She said that the majority of providers had been able to furlough staff but this did not address the long-term sustainability and the viability of services.
- Family frustrated over key worker childcare scheme
- Stormont launches £12m key worker childcare scheme
“For all providers this is hurtful, for some it will be catastrophic,” Ms Walmsley said.
“They may never be in a position to reopen their business.”
Patricia-Lewsley Mooney of the Northern Ireland Childminding Association also said the majority of childminders were “on their knees”.
She said of 2,700 self-employed childminders in Northern Ireland, 438 were now working looking after the children of key workers.
‘On their knees’
Ms Lewsley-Mooney said they could not be furloughed like employees in day-care and after-school providers.
“Many of them at the minute find themselves on their knees,” she said.
“The childcare sector could be decimated by all of this. I do think we will see a lot of children affected by this.”
Some parents have told BBC News NI they have had difficulty getting childcare as they were not classified as key workers under a list drawn up by the Department of Health.
But Philip Dalgity, speaking on behalf of Northern Ireland Day Care Owners, said that though the scheme was welcome implementation had been slow.
“While elements of the support look good, the roll out is too slow,” he said.
“This has a huge domino effect across providers, staff, parents or guardians and of course, most importantly, children.”
“We do not seek unrealistic grand gestures, we seek survival.”
The chair of the Education Committee, Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle, said that childcare was “absolutely vital” to children and to the economy.
MLAs on the committee have written to the ministers for Education and Health raising the concerns of the childcare sector.