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School Enrollment: Rights and Responsibilities

Who: All children who turn five years old by September 30th up through age 18 are required by Virginia law to be enrolled in public school, private school, or state-approved home school.Generally, students may enroll in school up until the age of 20 or until they graduate2.  Students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) may attend school until age 21.3 Students ages 12 and up who enroll in a Virginia public school for the first time and are identified as English Language Learners may stay in school until age 22.4

Where: Unless a child has a variance (meaning the school division approved a school different than the child’s zoned school), is homeless, is in kinship care (living with a relative who is not a parent) or in a foster care setting, the child should attend the school division where the child’s parent or guardian resides.  Residency must be “bona fide,” meaning that it must not be solely for the purpose of attending school.5

Families and living situations get complicated – if you have a question about where your child should attend school, please contact us here.

How: Call your local school or check your school division’s website for the specifics of how to enroll, but Virginia law requires certain paperwork prior to enrollment: A certified copy of a child’s birth certificate (or an affidavit that sets forth the child’s age and explains the reason that a certified copy of the child’s birth certificate cannot be obtained – if used, police will be notified); proof of residency such as utility bills and a lease (unless special circumstances); and a school physical examination form including immunization record.6

When: Parents are expected to register students for school as soon as possible, according to the local schedule for the start of the year. 

Common Legal Issues and Frequently Asked Questions

Changes in Custody or Moving

Many of Virginia’s children move throughout the school year and throughout the summer due to changes in their family and/or living situation.  Federal and state law aim to keep children in school despite these disruptions.  

If the child is in foster care, living with a non-parent relative, or staying somewhere temporarily, there are special legal protections to enable the child to attend school.  There are also legal protections so the child can enroll without the proper documentation.   If you have a question about these protections, contact the Youth Justice Program. 

When the child’s caretaker is not a parent or guardian, the child still has the right (and obligation) to enroll in school where the child resides, so long as the child isn’t living there solely for school purposes (“bona fide” residency).  A school should not require a guardianship order or require the adult to petition for custody to establish the child’s residency if bona fide residency can be established in other ways.7 

If the child’s parents live out of state, and that child has resided with the adult for 60 days or more, the adult must enroll the child in a Virginia school and must either pay tuition charges for the child’s school attendance or must find some way of having others pay tuition for the child’s school attendance.8

Lawful Presence

Children who are residents of Virginia are entitled to attend public school regardless of their or their parents’ immigration status.9  School systems may not require or even ask for information about a child or parent’s immigration status for the purposes of enrollment.

Children with IEP Placements

Children who have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) may attend a private school or a school outside of their division.  The IEP team makes the decision of whether the child needs such a placement.  The local school division remains responsible for ensuring the child receives appropriate educational services, even if the child is enrolled in a private school.10

If a child has an IEP and is in foster care, there are extra legal protections for school placement, enrollment, and transportation.  If you have a question about these protections, contact the Youth Justice Program. 

Placement options when a child does not want to go to school

  • Virginia has a compulsory attendance law, which means that all youth who are at least age five and under age 18 on or before September 30 of any year must be in school.11
  • School divisions may have educational programs, called alternative attendance programs, that allow a student to attend another public school either in the division the student resides in or another division chosen by the parent or caregiver. 
  • Check your local school division Board policies to see if your division participates in an alternative attendance program. 
  • Check your local school division website or contact the division about other programs, like vocational or technical programs, virtual programs, credit recovery, GED, and other placement options.12 
  • Students receiving special education through Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) must learn in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), or with non-disabled students to the “maximum extent appropriate.” 
  • Students with IEPs should have multiple options for placements based on their individual needs that range from complete separation from general education classes to full inclusion in the general education program.
    • Students who are hospitalized should still be able to receive their IEP via homebound instruction.  
    • Home-based instruction is available if students need to learn at home or another setting the IEP team identifies. 
    • Students may also receive homebound instruction for short periods of time when a licensed doctor or clinical psychologist certifies that the student cannot attend school in-person temporarily. 
    • Students may also attend a private school through a placement from the IEP team or a Comprehensive Services Act team at no cost to the caregiver if the IEP team determines that the school division cannot provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) based on the student’s IEP. When the student is placed into a private program, the school division that placed the student remains responsible for implementation of the IEP.13
  • Students who are compulsory school age (ages 5 to 18) do not have to attend public school if they are home schooled. Home school instruction may be provided if the instructor (usually a parent or caregiver):
    • Has a high school diploma;  
    • Is a qualified teacher under the state Board of Education requirements; 
    • Provides a curriculum or distance learning program; or 
    • Presents evidence of being able to provide an adequate education under state law. 
  • The parent or caregiver must notify the school division superintendent in August about home instruction with a list of subjects the student will study and that the instructor meets one of the requirements above. 
  • The parent or caregiver must report progress the student made by the following August, which may include:
    • Performance on a standardized achievement test; 
    • Evaluation or assessment approved by the superintendent to show growth and progress that includes an evaluation letter from a certified individual who has knowledge of the student’s progress or a report card or transcript from a home school program.14

Age when child is able to assert rights about their education

  • A student’s educational records are protected from disclosure without written informed consent. 
  • Parents or caregivers have the right to review, request changes to, and share a student’s records. 
  • When a student reaches the age of 18, these rights are transferred to the student.15


1: VA.CODE ANN. § 22.1-254(A).

2: VA. CODE ANN. § 22.1-1. 

3: 8 VAC 20-81-30(B)

4: VA.CODE ANN § 22.1-5(7)(D)

5: VA.CODE ANN. § 22.1-3(A).

6: VA.CODE ANN. §§ 22.1-3.1; 22.1-270; 22.1-271.2. 

7: 1987-88Va. Op. Atty. Gen.374(1987).

8: VA.CODE ANN. § 22-1-255. 

9: VA.CONST. art. VIII, § 1; see alsoPlyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982).

10: 8VAC20-81-150

11: Va. Code § 22.1-254 

12: Va. Code § 00.1-269.1

13: 8VAC20-81-130 

14: 22 Va. § 22.1-254.1 

15: Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g) 

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