Racism in Schools in the Era of COVID-19

18 June 2020

A variety of events in 2020 have awakened global discussions about the racism that continues to pervade our societies. The recent wave of Black Lives Matter protests, which started in the US but have now spread across the world, have provided a moment for Australians to reflect on the continued existence of racism in our own country.

While people from a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds may experience discrimination in Australia, in the era of COVID-19, racism against Asian-Australians and Asians in Australia has become more frequent and more explicit. The education sector has not been exempt from these incidents. This article will reflect on how racism can manifest in schools, how it affects students and what measures can be taken to mitigate it.


Racism in Australian Schools

Racism has long been present in Australian schools. Research undertaken in 2019 found that 40 per cent of students from non-Anglo or European backgrounds in Year Five to Year Nine reported experiencing racial discrimination from their peers. In addition to discrimination among and from students, 20 per cent of students from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) backgrounds reported experiencing racial discrimination from their teachers.

The racial discrimination experienced by students can take many forms, such as racist abuse, harassment or explicit discrimination. However, students may also be subject to racism in much more subtle ways, such as through prejudiced attitudes, a lack of recognition of cultural diversity, cultural erasure and culturally-biased practices. Regardless of their varying severity and visibility, these racist practices foster an environment within schools that can cause targeted students to feel unwelcome and afraid. This is likely to adversely affect their learning and development, and also may make them reluctant to attend school.

In addition, as we have seen in the Black Lives Matter protests, racial vilification will generally not be tolerated by many of their peers and a level of resentment and discontent could then develop within the whole year or even total school cohort.


Racism in the Era of COVID-19

Although students from a wide range of cultural or ethnic backgrounds may experience racial discrimination, students of Asian descent have been particularly affected in recent months as a result of the social response to the coronavirus pandemic. As some academics have commented, social stigmatisation and xenophobia are “unfortunately well-known features of disease outbreaks”. During the SARS outbreak of 2004, students of Asian descent in Toronto reported that other students would refuse to sit near them in class and that they were often socially excluded. The same xenophobic patterns seemed to play out in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a significant increase in reported incidents of anti-Asian racism in Australia and the Australian Human Rights Commission identifying anti-Chinese racism as a pressing issue.

Schools are very much at risk of becoming one of the sites where anti-Asian racism occurs if they do not identify and deal with it if it occurs. Early on in the global spread of COVID-19, some commentators raised concerns about how schools’ responses to the pandemic were affecting Asian-Australian students and Asian students studying in Australia. Some schools that implemented policies regarding student attendance or returning to school in response to the COVID-19 pandemic were accused of racist practices. It is also likely that students of Asian descent have faced social exclusion by peers or other members of the school community.


What Can Schools Do to Limit Racial Discrimination?

Schools owe a duty of care to their students, which means that they have a responsibility to handle crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, in a way that protects the wellbeing of students. This includes providing a safe environment in which students are not vilified, excluded or discriminated against on the basis of their race. The federal and the various state and territory Acts regarding discrimination make these behaviours illegal and schools are not exempt from these laws.

Schools are also bound to strive towards the goals set by the Australian education industry as a whole in relation to creating more inclusive school environments. For example, the Alice Springs (Mpartnwe) Education Declaration, which was signed by all state and federal education ministers, focuses heavily on supporting ATSI students to overcome the systemic discrimination that they may face.

To effectively create more inclusive communities, schools should educate students about multiculturalism and racism from a young age. As NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell has remarked, the classroom can be a safe entry point for children to learn about diversity and tolerance. By emphasising a diverse range of cultures and histories as part of the school curriculum, and by encouraging practices of cultural and racial tolerance, schools can promote intercultural understanding and acceptance among students. Schools can also help students to understand the serious ramifications of racist prejudices and behaviours.

Schools should also educate students specifically on how to deal with racism that occurs outside of the classroom. For example, the Anti-Defamation Commission’s Click Against Hate initiative is an educational program that equips students with effective strategies and skills to combat bigotry and prejudice that they may encounter online and in real-life situations. Students are taught how to appropriately deal with situations that may amount to racial discrimination, which enables them to better protect themselves and those around them. There are a number of other similar resources available to schools such as the Australian Student Wellbeing Framework, the Student Wellbeing Hub, and the Bullying. No Way! website. By promoting these resources and programs to students and staff, students can become more aware of the implications of bigotry, social biases, bullying and racial harassment.



Racism remains a serious and persistent issue in Australian schools. Schools need to be focused on how they can best protect their students from the harmful effects of racial discrimination. As stated in the Click Against Hate program, “all students deserve to be in school environments that foster inclusiveness, civility and respect for people of all faiths, backgrounds and cultures”. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a trying and difficult time for all schools across Australia. Learning from this experience and recognising the damaging effects of racism in schools can hopefully lead to future classrooms where all students, and their teachers too, feel safe and respected.



Soo Choi

Soo Choi is a Legal Research Assistant at CompliSpace. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws at the University of Sydney.


Lucinda Hughes

Lucinda Hughes is a Legal Research Assistant at CompliSpace. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws at the University of Sydney.


CompliSpace Media

CompliSpace is an Australian company that helps over 600 non-government schools across Australia with their governance, risk, compliance and policy management. What makes us different is that we monitor over 200 sources of legal and regulatory change to ensure our clients have the updated policies and tools they need to meet new requirements. We share that knowledge with the broader Education community via School Governance.