El Paso teacher who gained popularity online dies after 2-month battle with COVID-19

A video Zelene Blancas posted to Twitter of her students in 2018 went viral.

December 30, 2020, 8:38 PM

An El Paso, Texas, elementary school teacher whose video of her first graders giving each other hugs went viral in 2018 has died after a two-month battle with COVID-19.

Zelene Blancas, a bilingual teacher at Dr. Sue A. Shook Elementary School, was in the intensive care unit for nine weeks after contracting COVID-19, according to a GoFundMe fundraising campaign her family set up to help cover her medical expenses. Blancas died on Monday, school officials confirmed with ABC News. She was 35.

"She always made an effort to share kindness, whether it was with a message or a note or just reaching out to her colleagues," Principal Cristina Sanchez-Chavira told ABC News. "Just a very, very loving person."

The school has been remote since March. At the beginning of this school year, Blancas created care packages that included masks, pencils and candy and delivered them to her students, her principal said.

"She embodied kindness," Sanchez-Chavira said. "That's who she was."

The El Paso native, who taught at the school for four years, gained national attention in 2018 after a video she posted on Twitter went viral. In it, her first graders chose from a "good morning or goodbye" menu to give each other hugs, handshakes, high-fives or fist bumps.

"What a nice way to end our week!!" Blancas wrote in the post.

After her video garnered over 13 million views, Blancas told the El Paso Times that she wanted her students to feel like they "have a safe place to come back to and learn in a safe environment."

Blancas was surprised that it took off, Sanchez-Chavira recalled.

"That small action touched so many lives," the principal said. "The kids felt so comfortable. You could see how loving they were -- that came through in her video. And that I attribute to the culture she established in her class, that loving culture."

The video, which has since been viewed over 22 million times, drew the attention of PinkSocks Life co-founder Nick Adkins, whose organization works to spread kindness by gifting pink socks. He connected with Blancas to hand out over 1,330 pink socks to students at her elementary school last year during a "kindness pep rally."

The two continued to stay in touch, Adkins told ABC News, and he planned to return to her school district this past spring before postponing due to the pandemic.

Blancas "was just a bundle of kindness and joy and love," Adkins said.

"We try to celebrate people and organizations that are doing good things," he said. "I'm grateful for the legacy that she's left behind."

El Paso has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. After a surge in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations this fall, El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego ordered nonessential businesses to shut down in late October. The order ended on Dec. 1, while curfews during the holidays have since gone into effect to further limit spread. More than 1,450 people in El Paso have died due to COVID-19.

PHOTO: Dr. Sue Shook Elementary School teacher Zelene Blancas.
Dr. Sue Shook Elementary School teacher Zelene Blancas.

Sanchez-Chavira said her school has been largely spared during the pandemic until now. Once she learned of Blancas' passing, the school contacted the families of her students personally, including students from the past two years. The school is currently collecting photos of Blancas and letters from her students to give to her family, the principal said.

Sanchez-Chavira said she hopes to honor Blancas once the school returns to in-person learning, such as through a "kindness corner," for a "constant reminder of her and her kindness."

"It's very easy to find teachers that can teach," Sanchez-Chavira said. "But to find teachers that carry this passion and love for children, and the spreading of kindness, that in itself is irreplaceable."

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