Children in schools may be asked to wear face coverings in corridors and around school buildings as the Scottish Government look set to change their guidance for pupils.
Nicola Sturgeon said the government was consulting with teachers and unions on the potential move to mandatory face coverings but said it was unlikely the decision would extend to classrooms.
It follows a change in global advice from the World Health Organisation who said that children over the age of 12 should wear a face covering in areas where social distancing is not possible.
The First Minister said that the education secretary John Swinney is in the “final stages” of consultation with teachers and local authorities on a move to make face coverings mandatory when pupils are moving around the school estate and are in communal areas.
She added the decision was made due to the higher likelihood of transmission due to mixing between different groups and the likelihood of crowding and close contact in corridors which could cause shouting and “greater potential transmission”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “This is a position, if we conclude it as we expect to do, that would reflect and actually go slightly beyond current WHO guidance.
"We’re not currently consulting on any proposals for pupils to wear face coverings in classrooms and that is because there is greater scope for physical distancing in the classroom and face coverings are of course more likely to interfere with teaching and learning.
"I would emphasis however that where there are outbreaks, it does remain an option for incident management teams to recommend more extensive use of face coverings if they believe in a particular area that is required for a period to protect public health and reduce the risk of transmission.”
Asked whether schools would have a supply of masks for those pupils who attend without one and what enforcement action might be taken, the First Minister said both were issues the consultation was focusing on.
She said: “With schools, it stands to reason in an obvious practical sense that we look to schools as we look to individual businesses to implement the guidance that is in place here.
"Schools will be responsible for making sure the guidance is implemented.
"I don’t want to get into the position of talking about enforcement or exclusions. There will be, as there is for the regulations on face masks in shops and public transport, exemptions for children who may have a medical reason for not wearing a face covering.
"But this is about making sure that we are following the most up to date advice to try to minimise the risk of transmission and the risk of transmission in a school will be slightly greater in a corridor or a communal area where physical distancing is more difficult.”
Jo Bisset, an organiser for the campaign group Us for Them Scotland which called for a full opening of schools, said the group didn’t back face coverings in schools.
She said the decision could be “hugely damaging” to children with autism, hearing impairments and asthma.
Ms Bisse said: ““Everyone appreciates the health and safety of pupils and teachers has to be a priority.
“We also have to consider those children from unstable households who simply won’t be sent to school with any mask, let alone one that is safe and effective.
“Parents want to get their children back to school and for that experience to be as normal as it possibly can be.
“Forced wearing of masks in the classroom, or when moving about the building, would not achieve any sense of normality for children who’ve endured quite enough in recent months.
“Parents want the Scottish Government and councils to rule out this move now so they can get on with assisting their children back into the school routine.”
The move won the support of Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie who said it was the “right thing to do”.
He said: “This change of policy is the right thing to do and will provide an extra barrier of protection from the virus and reassurance to staff, pupils and parents.
“The reality on the ground in Scotland’s schools was outpacing the government’s policy and with the World Health Organisation recommending face coverings between classes and in other parts of the school estate this move is the right one.”
However, while the Scottish Greens welcomed the move, the party’s education spokesman Ross Greer said he was “confused” as to why the First Minister didn’t see the value of masks in classrooms.
He said: “I am pleased that the Scottish Government is finally moving to encourage the wearing of face coverings in schools. The Greens first proposed this in June and consistently pressed the Government over the summer to strengthen their guidance, including last week at First Minister’s Questions.
“There is clear evidence that face coverings significantly reduce transmission of the virus, so it is disappointing that it’s taken the government so long to hear teachers’ concerns, rather than make this inevitable change before schools reopened.
“I am confused as to why the First Minister thinks masks should be worn in corridors but not classrooms though. She can’t have spent much time in high schools recently if she thinks social distancing is going on in classes of twenty to thirty teenagers when the classrooms are no bigger than they were in March.”
Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, welcomed the consultation.
He said: “The EIS continues to believe that effective physical distancing is the best means of reducing the risk of COVID-19 spread in schools. We are continuing to press the Scottish Government for more staff and smaller classes to achieve this.
"We note the WHO advice on face coverings for those aged 12 and over, where 1m distancing cannot be maintained.
"In situations where physical distancing is difficult, for example in busy corridors when pupils are moving between classes, use of face coverings becomes more important and we welcome the current Scottish Government consultation on this issue."