SENIOR school pupils in the Central Belt and Dundee should wear face coverings in class from next week, the Scottish Government has said.

New guidance says pupils in S4 to S6 and their teachers should wear face coverings in classrooms, as well as when they are moving around the school and in communal areas, in areas under level three and level four restrictions.

The Central Belt - including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Stirling, Falkirk, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire - will move into level three of the Scottish Government's new five-tier coronavirus lockdown system from Monday, as will Dundee.

The guidance says that across all levels, face coverings should be worn by adults at all times where they cannot keep two metres away from other adults and pupils.

There are some exceptions in P1 and 2.

Meanwhile, face coverings should also be worn by parents and other visitors to any school site, whether entering the building or otherwise, including when parents drop off and pick up children.

Opposition parties criticised the way the latest changes were announced.

Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene said: “Once again, significant Covid-19 restrictions are announced by the SNP Government hours after parliament closes.

"Had they made this known on Thursday, this could have been properly debated.

"Parents across Scotland understood the guidance around staff wearing masks in schools, and older pupils wearing them in public areas, but the SNP has not explained why this latest move is necessary.

“Nor have they addressed legitimate concerns about pupils' wellbeing, particularly for those with additional support needs."

Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: "This may well be sensible, but it should have been announced to parliament along with the other aspects of the new levels, with the evidence properly presented, and the needs of all pupils, some of whom cannot wear face coverings, taken account of."

Scottish Greens education spokesman Ross Greer said it was an overdue step but "cannot be seen as a substitute for a system of regular testing available to for staff and senior pupils".

He said: "Teachers were promised their health would be protected by robust social distancing, despite it being obvious that this would be impossible in most school settings.

"And they were told that ‘enhanced surveillance testing’ would be fully operational by October, but the Scottish Government still won’t confirm if that’s the case.

"School staff deserve far more protection than they’re currently getting."

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the evidence suggests there is "slightly higher infection and transmission risks" among 16 and 17-year-olds.

He said the use of face coverings is an additional, precautionary measure in areas where there is increased incidence of the virus.

He said: “Keeping schools open remains our priority but that can only be the case if schools are safe.

"There have been tremendous efforts applied by staff and pupils to ensure this is the case and I thank them all for their efforts.

"We constantly review the guidance on school opening along with our local authority partners, trades unions, parental representatives and other stakeholders to ensure we are taking all the necessary measures to ensure our schools are safe.

"This strengthened guidance, produced in light of updated scientific and health advice, adds to the health mitigations that have been in place since schools opened in August.

“From Monday, there will be increased use of face coverings and new advice to help protect those in the shielding category.  

“It is vital that all the measures are followed rigorously in schools.

"Doing that – together with the collective efforts of all of us across wider society – will help to ensure that schools can safely remain open.

“None of the levels in the framework require any automatic move to school closures or blended learning.

"However, no one can predict what the coming weeks and months will bring.

"Remote learning remains an important contingency for schools at all levels of the strategic framework and there has been considerable progress made in the provision of remote learning, should that be required.”

Parents' group UsForThem Scotland criticised the face coverings decision.

Organiser Jo Bisset said: “Parents suspect this decision has been made on a whim, and is merely just the start of an escalation which will eventually see all pupils forced to wear masks.

“It will be incredibly uncomfortable for young people to spend several hours a day in a mask, and could impact on their learning and education.

“We have particular concerns about the impact it will have on vulnerable pupils and those with autism or hearing difficulties.

“All parents ask is that, when such significant decisions are taken, the reasons and evidence for it are backed up.

“We’re now months into this situation and the government has had ample opportunity to assess what impact its previous mask guidelines were having."