The Teacher Whose Sweet Classroom Routine Went Viral Has Died Of COVID

Texas teacher Zelene Blancas went viral in 2018 with a video of her students greeting each other with hugs and high-fives.

by Morgan Brinlee

Roughly two months after being diagnosed with COVID-19, the Texas educator behind a viral classroom video has died at the age of 35. Zelene Blancas, a teacher at Dr. Sue A. Shook Elementary School who'd captured the nation's attention in 2018 when she shared a video of her first-grade students greeting each other with hugs, handshakes, and high fives, died in late December following a months-long battle with the virus.

"With a very heavy heart we confirm what many of you already know, Zelene passed away on Monday, Dec. 28," an update posted to a GoFundMe campaign established by Blancas' family read. "In the midst of this terrible loss, we are humbled by everyone’s outpouring of love and support. Zelene was a beautiful person who spread love and positivity every day and that is even more evident now."

Blancas' work as an educator captured national attention in November 2018 after a video she shared of her students went viral on Twitter. In the video, Blancas' students greet each other by choosing from a list of physical greetings — either a hug, a handshake, a high-five, or a fist bump. At the time, Blancas was praised for finding an innovative way to cultivate kindness and consent among her students.

As her video amassed more than 13.5 million views and 25,000 retweets, she told the El Paso Times she'd started the greetings procedure in an effort to ensure students felt safe and happy in their learning environment while also introducing them to social-emotional learning. "I want them to go home feeling like I’ll be waiting for them here the next day, or for them to feel like they’ll have a safe place to come back to and learn in a safe environment," Blancas told the newspaper. The video has since been viewed more than 24 million times.

The El Paso educator tested positive for COVID-19 in October and was later hospitalized, according to a GoFundMe campaign Blancas' family started in mid-December to help cover her medical bills. "Despite taking all precautions possible, Zelene tested positive for COVID 19 on October 20th and had to be hospitalized on October 24th and has been in ICU since then," a message on the GoFundMe campaign read. On Dec. 26, the family updated the GoFundMe to say Blancas was "still in the ICU fighting."

But Blancas tragically lost her fight against COVID on Dec. 28. "We will be saying goodbye to Zelene," the GoFundMe reads. "But her legacy of love and kindness will be with us forever. We will forever be grateful to each and every one of you who supported us through these most difficult of times and for remembering our Zelene with so much love."

Dr. Sue A. Shook Elementary School Principal Cristina Sanchez-Chavira told ABC News the school hopes to honor Blancas with a "kindness corner" once in-person learning and activities have safely resumed. "It's very easy to find teachers that can teach," Sanchez-Chavira told the news outlet. "But to find teachers that carry this passion and love for children, and the spreading of kindness, that in itself is irreplaceable."

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here.