Avenues: The World School, an exclusive, for-profit private school in Manhattan with a $56,000 tuition has been lauded for its thorough preparations for starting the school year in a pandemic. “The most expensive high school in America may have the best reopening strategy,” CNBC recently proclaimed.

But teachers at the school, which opened for in-person classes on Tuesday, have raised concerns about the plan, and some say they are alarmed by how Avenues has responded.

Under the plan, students and teachers come in five days a week. They have staggered arrival times and have to answer questions about how they’re feeling that day on an app and get their temperatures checked before entering the building. Students then stay in pods so that they’re in the same classroom with the same teacher all day. But that doesn’t mean they’re getting a full day of in-person learning. Instead, students still take most of their classes online (everyone at Avenues gets a laptop and iPad) with teachers and peers who are not necessarily in the same room.

Teachers in Avenues’ Upper Division sent a letter to school administrators in August questioning both the safety and educational value of the model and urging the school to delay the start of in-person learning—something the city’s public schools and some private schools have done.

“Despite students and faculty braving the risk of contraction on their commutes to campus and while on campus, students will not have the opportunity to interact with most, if not all of their teachers in-person,” the letter said. “All the while, pod teachers will often find themselves focused on their online courses, rather than the 16 students in their presence. We sincerely question the value of this approach.”

In an email responding to the letter on August 18th, Todd Shy, head of Avenues’ Upper Division, made it clear that any concerns should be raised in one-on-one meetings that were being scheduled between teachers and administrators. Although Avenues touted its one-on-one meetings as one of many ways it has sought to support teachers during the pandemic, those who spoke to Gothamist said the meetings left some teachers afraid to continue collectively discussing their concerns.

In the meetings, staff members were asked whether they wanted to stay on or take a leave of absence—a choice that some interpreted as a threat. Avenues granted some teachers with medical conditions or children with high-risk medical conditions permission to work remotely, but teachers say some who applied were denied, including one beloved dean at the school who ultimately accepted a leave of absence with no guarantee she would be able to return. Four Avenues teachers spoke to Gothamist on the condition of anonymity, for fear of losing their jobs.

“People are more afraid in a one-on-one scenario,” one teacher told Gothamist. “You’re just there with your boss. And they were sending a very clear message of, ‘Are you in or are you out?’ Either you’re on board with what we’re doing or no more income for you, no more health care for your family.”

That teacher added that, initially, his biggest concern about the reopening plan was that only teachers were required to get a COVID-19 test before returning to school. The administration has since added a requirement that students must get tested as well.

Now, he says, he’s more concerned about the way the school reacted to the collective action of drafting a letter.

“This is essentially what Walmart does in its orientations,” the teacher said. “Like, ‘Our door is always open, so there’s no need to talk collectively about things.’”

While the United Federation of Teachers union has had a major role in shaping the reopening plans for New York City public schools, most private school staff are not unionized. The new occupational hazards they face during the COVID-19 pandemic have galvanized some to organize to collectively raise their concerns to the administrations at their respective schools. So far, those efforts have yielded mixed results.

Teachers and staff at the Brooklyn Friends School voted in May to join the UAW 2110, which represents workers at universities such as Columbia and NYU as well as other types of workplaces. The head of school at Brooklyn Friends responded by petitioning the National Labor Relations Board to decertify the union on the grounds that it violated the school’s Quaker values.

At The Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn Heights, the initial plan was to start the school year in-person. “Then teachers mobilized,” a Packer teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, told Gothamist. “We wrote a letter listing why the majority of us did not want to start in-person and then there were a series of meetings.”

Classes at Packer are now fully remote until at least October 2nd, which the teacher says she considers a win. “We did feel heard” by Packer’s head of school, the teacher said. But she added that teachers wrote the letter in the first place because they didn’t feel they were part of the conversation. In terms of prioritizing stakeholders, including parents and trustees, the teacher said, “I feel like teachers are the lowest rung.”

Teachers at Avenues expressed similar frustration at not being included in the process of determining what reopening would look like. In a Zoom meeting that one teacher recorded and shared with Gothamist, some participants pressed Avenues President Jeff Clark about how teachers had been included in the process of deciding which reopening model to go with.

“Our decision-making process is participative rather than consensus-driven or crowd-sourced,” Clark explained. “I’m not meaning to imply we asked all teachers across all of Avenues.”

Rather, he said, “there were many teachers both inside and outside Avenues” who were consulted, including teachers in Singapore (whose educational model informed the one Avenues is using) and Shenzhen.

Avenues has campuses in Shenzhen and Sao Paolo, and has now opened a satellite campus in the Hamptons, where many wealthy families have decamped during the pandemic. Avenues New York serves more than 1,500 students from pre-K through 12th grade.

“Avenues certainly understands that there is increased anxiety and concerns within our community as we return to school,” Avenues said in a statement. “As such, we have prioritized the health, safety and wellbeing—physical, mental and emotional—of our colleagues, students and families since the pandemic first began.”

Unlike some private schools, Avenues stands to lose money under a fully remote learning model. The company already offered a full online curriculum prior to the pandemic through its Avenues Online program, which has seen enrollment jump from about 20 students last year to 400 students this year. At $30,000 per year, the Avenues Online tuition is much cheaper than the nearly $60,000 it costs to send a child to school at the Chelsea campus. But this year, Avenues is also offering private tutors for students who enroll in Avenues Online, which run families $65,000 per household for the first child and $45,000 for each additional child, on top of the cost of tuition.

Some teachers speculated that the decision to offer in-person classes right away was an effort to justify the full cost of Avenues’ regular tuition.

“We have this situation here in Manhattan where these schools obviously cater to the super wealthy and want to see themselves as being these liberal, progressive institutions,” one teacher said. “But when it comes down to it, it’s all about the profit.”

Avenues has put some of its vast resources towards new technology and infrastructure to promote safety at the school. It has installed bluetooth chips in students’ ID cards to monitor who they interact with and allow for contact-tracing if someone gets infected with COVID-19 and is giving teachers handheld UV sanitizing wands, among other measures.

Still, one teacher said kids were “not socially distancing” on the first day and that the extra gadgets didn’t make her feel any better about coming into school.

“There seems to be a lot of theatrics involved in moving forward,” she said. “There are all these little gadgets they’re using in their welcome back videos to parents to make it seem like we have it under control and we’re tech savvy. To me it’s all optics.”