The Education Authority (EA) is considering closing a number of nurseries in special schools, BBC News NI understands.
The authority is considering the move as it has to increase the number of Primary One pupils some schools can take.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the EA said it was facing “an extremely challenging situation”.
“The EA is currently exploring all options,” the statement continued.
The EA has previously warned of a significant shortfall in special schools places this year.
It has said there is a need for 140 more classes in special schools in September 2023 compared with the 2022-23 school year.
Rise in demand
The authority is also attempting to open about 60 extra specialist classes for children with special educational needs in mainstream schools.
There is particular demand for places in pre-school and primary one.
Restrictions on early-years support for children during the Covid-19 pandemic is one reason for the “significant” rise in demand, according to the authority.
As a result, there are many children with special educational needs who have not yet had their school place for September confirmed.
There has been a substantial rise in demand for places in special schools in recent years, with about 7.000 pupils in 2022-23.
In 2017 there were about 5,400 pupils.
Of Northern Ireland’s 39 special schools, about 25 admit “early years” pupils from age three, according to the EA’s strategic plan for special education.
Pre-school or nursery is for young pupils aged three to four.
The strategic plan by the EA for special education until 2027 had set an aim to increase the “number of pupils accessing pre-school provision in special schools”.
But the authority is now considering cutting the number of nurseries and pre-schools in a number of special schools.
It is not yet clear how many schools face losing their nursery provision this year but BBC News NI understands that schools in the Belfast area are most likely to be affected.
The plan, however, could prove controversial.
One teacher who contacted BBC News NI said parents of pupils with complex needs would be devastated if the move went ahead.
Another said the plan had been prepared without consultation with parents or schools.
An Omagh special school has recently warned it may have to cut the hours children can attend because of the demand for places.
But the principal of Arvalee School, Jonathan Gray, said the school had asked the EA for extra staff so that it could continue to offer “full-time” hours to children.
Mr Gray is also chair of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) special educational needs committee.
He called the EA’s plans “a disgrace”.
“The children that my colleagues and I educate deserve the best possible start in school,” he told BBC News NI.
“Weeks have gone by and the only solution found for the children, our most vulnerable, without a place in school is to deny other vulnerable children.
“We as a union can’t fathom it.
“We feel for all involved, the children have been systematically failed.
“And we as a country should be ashamed. Where is Stormont? Where is the department?”
In a statement to BBC News NI, the EA said there had been an increase of over 25% in pupils with special educational needs requiring a place in special schools and specialist classes in mainstream schools compared with June last year.
“The growth in demand is most significant in primary one and pre-school year groups,” the statement continued.
“The EA is currently exploring all options to ensure that children of statutory school age have a school placement and that pre-school children whose parents wish them to attend a pre-school setting have a suitable school place where they are happy, learning and succeeding.
“We recognise that this is an extremely anxious time for those parents and children waiting for the confirmation of a school place.
“EA will continue to work hard, with parents, carers and school principals, to ensure that all pupils are appropriately placed.”
Source: BBC News