Former headline: Gov. Stitt replaces Board of Education member with Enid woman who leads anti-mask group

Melissa Crabtree, who Gov. Kevin Stitt appointed last week to the state’s Board of Education, asked that her appointment be rescinded, according to a media release from Stitt’s office.

Crabtree, a vocal opponent of mask mandates in her hometown of Enid, came under fire immediately following her appointment. She often shared debunked COVID-19 claims on social media, had fought against mask mandates in Enid, and appeared to have little connection to public education.

Stitt said: “I spoke with Melissa Crabtree today and she requested that I rescind her appointment to the Oklahoma State Board of Education.  

I was extremely disappointed to see how many were so quick to judge her without taking the time to personally speak to her.  

Ms. Crabtree is a loving mother and wife, and her public school teaching experience and work with special needs children would have been valuable assets to our state. 

However, it’s become clear that Democrats and unions only value the voices of teachers when they are willing to fall in line with their political agendas.”

Crabtree said: “I am grateful to Governor Stitt for nominating me to serve on the Oklahoma State Board of Education and it is a tremendous honor to be considered. However, after careful consideration, I have determined that this is not the right opportunity for me to serve my state.”

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s replacement for outgoing Oklahoma State Board of Education member Kurt Bollenbach is an Enid woman who has aggressively fought against mask mandates in the central Oklahoma town.  

According to a document filed with the Oklahoma Secretary of State on Dec. 3, Stitt has chosen to replace Bollenbach with Melissa Crabtree. Crabtree will finish Bollenbach’s term, which ends April 2, 2023. The switch was first reported by the Tulsa World.

Crabtree operates “Enid Freedom Fighters,” an anti-mask group there that has fought against mask mandates and has attempted to recall city commissioner Ben Ezzell, who proposed a city-wide mask mandate last summer. 

“Enid Freedom Fighters” describes itself as seeking “to encourage our city leaders through involvement, educate ourselves on the issues of our city, and equip ourselves to positively contribute to local politics.”

Ezell currently has a recall election scheduled for early 2021.

The Board of Education switch comes weeks after Stitt held an in-person news conference and said he believed appointed board members should have views that align with his. Stitt appointed Bollenbach to his position in April 2019.

At a Nov. 19, 2020, news conference at the state Capitol, Stitt said he was against a statewide mask mandate for public schools. “That’s, to me, a local school discussion. I support those local school districts that have done it.”

Asked if he has communicated to his state board of education appointees his objection to mask mandates, Stitt said his Secretary of Education, Ryan Walters, has been the primary contact person for his office with board members. While he wasn’t sure of the specific conversations, Stitt said, “We certainly want our appointees to think the way we do and to encourage all the things we are talking about, so I would assume they would be right in line with where my views are.”

Bollenbach had also recently pushed for a statewide mask mandate for schools, an effort that failed. He has also tussled with Epic Charter School over some of their funding, which likely didn’t endear him to Stitt, a noted school choice advocate. 

During a City of Enid public meeting on Tuesday, Crabtree spoke about masks, the coronavirus, and treatments, saying that staying healthy by exercising, eating well and taking vitamins was an appropriate way to combat the virus. 

In the speech, Crabtree told Enid Mayor George Pankonin and council members: “Your role is not to govern our behavior, it is to look to the issues of our city.”

She touted 1,300 signatures collected by Enid Freedom Fighters of registered voters who opposed a city-wide mask mandate, and urged the council and mayor to “stand up to the noise of the liberal media and bullies in the community, and not place an undue burden on businesses and vote for the citizens of Enid to manage our personal health affairs with our own responsibility as we see fit.”

In a post on Facebook from late November, Crabtree, who has since made her profile private, said the “current death rate” in Garfield County, where Enid is located, is about one percent, “meaning 99 chances in 100 you’re going to make it,” she wrote. 

She listed “preventive” options including vitamins, zinc and immune boosters and said “Covid is here. Most of us will get it.”

As of Dec. 4, 208,875 Oklahomans had tested positive for the virus, and 1,860 people had died as a result of infections, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. 

Many schools across Oklahoma have been affected by both small and large coronavirus outbreaks that have often resulted in large-scale class quarantines or even returns to distance learning in schools that had previously resumed in-person instruction. 

Many schools have resorted to quarantining entire classes of students following a positive test, though some have said that often none of the quarantining students ever reported having any displayed any symptoms. 

In Mustang, the school system has come up with an unconventional idea of allowing students who had been exposed to a positive COVID-19 case but were asymptomatic, to resume in-person classes together, to avoid exposing the rest of the school.

Oklahoma State Department of Health Commissioner of Health Dr. Lance Frye announced the pilot program during a Wednesday press conference. Mustang Public Schools is the first to adopt the program. The school district has struggled with quarantining students, they told Fox25 in Oklahoma. In September, more than 500 students isolating at a single time.

“Nobody’s going to be forced to participate. Nobody is going to be assigned to the classroom or to the program. It’s strictly a voluntary program,” Mustang Public Schools Director of Communications Kirk Wilson told Fox25. 

Oklahoma Superintendent of Schools Joy Hofmeister recently told StateImpactOklahoma that she hoped all Oklahoma schools could return to in-person learning by January. 

“How do we get there? We get there by having the most, I think, wise and careful administration of public health policy that is actually going to make a difference right now for all Oklahomans. And sadly, I feel like we are now behind in the opportunity to contain the virus. I think that could have been mitigated earlier,” Hofmeister said in the interview.

She told the station she would have implemented an in-school mask mandate “a long time ago” if she could have.

“We are imploring our local school districts, of course, and superintendents to have a mask requirement of all staff and students on campus … It has to happen. And if there was a way to direct that as state superintendent, I would have done that a long time ago.”

Oklahoma’s Board of Education has twice voted to recommend masks in schools, but both times have come short of requiring them. Votes against requiring mask mandates in schools — but for recommending them — were 4-3 during meetings in July and again in November, though COVID-19 cases in the state have surged since this summer. 
The Oklahoma Education Association has criticized the board’s reticence to mandate masks, calling it “a complete lack of leadership with potentially grave consequences for our students, educators, support professionals and communities.”