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Texas teacher behind heartwarming viral video dies at 35 of COVID-19

Zelene Blancas, whose video of her students hugging each other went viral in 2018, was diagnosed with the virus two months before her death on Dec. 28.
Zelene Blancas, 35, taught first grade in El Paso, Texas.
Zelene Blancas, 35, taught first grade in El Paso, Texas. GoFundMe
/ Source: TODAY

Zelene Blancas, an El Paso teacher whose sweet classroom routine went viral in 2018, has died from COVID-19. Sunset Funeral Homes-West confirmed her death to TODAY. A verified GoFundMe organized by her family also announced the news on Saturday.

Blancas was 35 years old and taught first grade at Dr. Sue A. Shook Elementary. According to the GoFundMe, Blancas first tested positive for the virus on Oct. 20 and was hospitalized in the intensive care unit (ICU) on Oct. 24.

"It is with a heart full of sadness that I am updating this thread," wrote Nick Adkins, the founder of Pinksocks Life, a group of people who aim to spread "kindness and empathy," on Dec. 28. Blancas was friends with Adkins and volunteered with the organization before her illness. In January 2020, the group made a donation to students at her school.

"Zelene died this morning at 4:45 local time in El Paso. She is at peace now. She is loved by many and will be missed by many."

According to the GoFundMe, Blancas took "all precautions possible" to avoid the virus. According to the Dr. Sue A. Shook Elementary website, the school has been conducting classes virtually since March.

In 2018, Blancas went viral after sharing a video of her first-grade students hugging and high-fiving each other. Students were given the option of choosing between a hug, handshake, high-five or fist bump to show kindness to their classmates.

"What a nice way to end the week!" wrote Blancas on Twitter. The video has been viewed more than 22 million times.

At the time, Blancas told that she had wanted to help her students with social-emotional development.

"I thought it would be a good idea for them to get comfortable with themselves and build those relationships with each other," she said.

El Paso has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. On Oct. 25, a day after Blancas was hospitalized, NBC News reported that the city had recorded a roughly 200% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in just a month. The city's convention center was turned into a field hospital and auxiliary medical units were deployed to local hospitals to help care for more patients.

The city attempted to shut down all non-essential businesses on Oct. 29, but the order was overturned by an appeals court. In late November, the city enacted a curfew aimed at slowing the spread of the virus as case counts and deaths continued to rise.

As of Jan. 3, more than 28,000 people have died in Texas due to COVID-19.