The closure of schools during the lockdowns which have been enforced by the Government to contain the spread of Covid-19 has led to millions of students being confined to their own homes to continue their learning remotely.
In cities such as Bradford and Hull, which have among the lowest education attainment levels in the country, secondary and primary school pupils had some of the worst attendance while schools have been open during the pandemic.
Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield told The Yorkshire Post that the legacy of such long periods away from the classroom as pupils remain in isolation from their peers will impinge on their ability to form bonds with other youngsters.
She said: “This has been the biggest disruption to the nation’s education system since the Second World War, and the consequences of repeatedly closing schools is having a huge impact on children.
“There will undoubtedly be issues with mental health, and children will be nervous about returning to school.
“But every effort needs to be made to rebuild their confidence and ensure that the feelings of isolation that they have experienced can be overcome.”
Figures provided by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner have shown that primary and secondary school pupils in Bradford and Hull missed, on average, 7.7 days of classroom learning between September 9 to December 10 last year.
During that period while schools were open before closing for the current lockdown on January 4, the figure was 6.9 days in Sheffield, 6.5 days in Leeds and 6.4 days in Calderdale, compared to the national average of 4.7 days for primary and secondary pupils’ absence from the classroom.
Ms Longfield has called for mental health counsellors to be recruited in every school to help deal with the anxiety and stress which will be felt by students in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Research which has been published by the NSPCC children’s charity has revealed that the amount of counselling for loneliness provided by its Childline service has risen by 10 per cent since the pandemic started.
Ms Longfield stressed that one of the key aspects for helping children rebuild social bonds with their peers is to ensure that there is not solely a heavy reliance on academic studies.
She told The Yorkshire Post a key focus should be on play and sports provision, giving children the time to socialise and bring them back to some degree of normality after Covid-19.
She said: “Teachers have been amazing throughout all that’s been going on and they have provided a real life-line for their pupils, staying in contact with families and doing so much for the communities they are working in.
“But children have been kept apart for such a long period, that they will have to learn to socialise again and play along together.
“Those are simple things which were actually taken for granted before coronavirus, but the current situation has changed society so dramatically.
“Children do need to achieve academically, but they also need to fulfil their potential creatively too - they need to have fun and be able to enjoy themselves once again after all that has happened.”
The Government has maintained that it is committed to re-opening schools at the earliest opportunity in the wake of the current lockdown.
However, Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused this week to guarantee that England's schoolchildren will return to class on March 8.
Mr Johnson has targeted that date for the return of schools because those most at risk of dying from coronavirus will have received protection from a first dose of vaccine by then.
But at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Mr Johnson was not able to say that all children will return, nor that the March 8 date would be met.